A History of Science, Volume 2 by Henry Smith Williams

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A History of Science, Volume 2, by Henry Smith Williams

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The studies of the present book cover the progress of science from the close of the Roman period in the fifth century A.D. to about the middle of the eighteenth century. In tracing the course of events through so long a period, a difficulty becomes prominent which everywhere besets the historian in less degree–a difficulty due to the conflict between the strictly chronological and the topical method of treatment. We must hold as closely as possible to the actual sequence of events, since, as already pointed out, one discovery leads on to another. But, on the other hand, progressive steps are taken contemporaneously in the various fields of science, and if we were to attempt to introduce these in strict chronological order we should lose all sense of topical continuity.

Our method has been to adopt a compromise, following the course of a single science in each great epoch to a convenient stopping-point, and then turning back to bring forward the story of another science. Thus, for example, we tell the story of Copernicus and Galileo, bringing the record of cosmical and mechanical progress down to about the middle of the seventeenth century, before turning back to take up the physiological progress of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Once the latter stream is entered, however, we follow it without interruption to the time of Harvey and his contemporaries in the middle of the seventeenth century, where we leave it to return to the field of mechanics as exploited by the successors of Galileo, who were also the predecessors and contemporaries of Newton.

In general, it will aid the reader to recall that, so far as possible, we hold always to the same sequences of topical treatment of contemporary events; as a rule we treat first the cosmical, then the physical, then the biological sciences. The same order of treatment will be held to in succeeding volumes.

Several of the very greatest of scientific generalizations are developed in the period covered by the present book: for example, the Copernican theory of the solar system, the true doctrine of planetary motions, the laws of motion, the theory of the circulation of the blood, and the Newtonian theory of gravitation. The labors of the investigators of the early decades of the eighteenth century, terminating with Franklin’s discovery of the nature of lightning and with the Linnaean classification of plants and animals, bring us to the close of our second great epoch; or, to put it otherwise, to the threshold of the modern period,


An obvious distinction between the classical and mediaeval epochs may be found in the fact that the former produced, whereas the latter failed to produce, a few great thinkers in each generation who were imbued with that scepticism which is the foundation of the investigating spirit; who thought for themselves and supplied more or less rational explanations of observed phenomena. Could we eliminate the work of some score or so of classical observers and thinkers, the classical epoch would seem as much a dark age as does the epoch that succeeded it.

But immediately we are met with the question: Why do no great original investigators appear during all these later centuries? We have already offered a part explanation in the fact that the borders of civilization, where racial mingling naturally took place, were peopled with semi-barbarians. But we must not forget that in the centres of civilization all along there were many men of powerful intellect. Indeed, it would violate the principle of historical continuity to suppose that there was any sudden change in the level of mentality of the Roman world at the close of the classical period. We must assume, then, that the direction in which the great minds turned was for some reason changed. Newton is said to have alleged that he made his discoveries by “intending” his mind in a certain direction continuously. It is probable that the same explanation may be given of almost every great scientific discovery. Anaxagoras could not have thought out the theory of the moon’s phases; Aristarchus could not have found out the true mechanism of the solar system; Eratosthenes could not have developed his plan for measuring the earth, had not each of these investigators “intended” his mind persistently towards the problems in question.

Nor can we doubt that men lived in every generation of the dark age who were capable of creative thought in the field of science, bad they chosen similarly to “intend” their minds in the right direction. The difficulty was that they did not so choose. Their minds had a quite different bent. They were under the spell of different ideals; all their mental efforts were directed into different channels. What these different channels were cannot be in doubt–they were the channels of oriental ecclesiasticism. One all-significant fact speaks volumes here. It is the fact that, as Professor Robinson[1] points out, from the time of Boethius (died 524 or 525 A.D.) to that of Dante (1265-1321 A.D.) there was not a single writer of renown in western Europe who was not a professional churchman. All the learning of the time, then, centred in the priesthood. We know that the same condition of things pertained in Egypt, when science became static there. But, contrariwise, we have seen that in Greece and early Rome the scientific workers were largely physicians or professional teachers; there was scarcely a professional theologian among them.

Similarly, as we shall see in the Arabic world, where alone there was progress in the mediaeval epoch, the learned men were, for the most part, physicians. Now the meaning of this must be self-evident. The physician naturally “intends” his mind towards the practicalities. His professional studies tend to make him an investigator of the operations of nature. He is usually a sceptic, with a spontaneous interest in practical science. But the theologian “intends” his mind away from practicalities and towards mysticism. He is a professional believer in the supernatural; he discounts the value of merely “natural” phenomena. His whole attitude of mind is unscientific; the fundamental tenets of his faith are based on alleged occurrences which inductive science cannot admit–namely, miracles. And so the minds “intended” towards the supernatural achieved only the hazy mysticism of mediaeval thought. Instead of investigating natural laws, they paid heed (as, for example, Thomas Aquinas does in his Summa Theologia) to the “acts of angels,” the “speaking of angels,” the “subordination of angels,” the “deeds of guardian angels,” and the like. They disputed such important questions as, How many angels can stand upon the point of a needle? They argued pro and con as to whether Christ were coeval with God, or whether he had been merely created “in the beginning,” perhaps ages before the creation of the world. How could it be expected that science should flourish when the greatest minds of the age could concern themselves with problems such as these?

Despite our preconceptions or prejudices, there can be but one answer to that question. Oriental superstition cast its blight upon the fair field of science, whatever compensation it may or may not have brought in other fields. But we must be on our guard lest we overestimate or incorrectly estimate this influence. Posterity, in glancing backward, is always prone to stamp any given age of the past with one idea, and to desire to characterize it with a single phrase; whereas in reality all ages are diversified, and any generalization regarding an epoch is sure to do that epoch something less or something more than justice. We may be sure, then, that the ideal of ecclesiasticism is not solely responsible for the scientific stasis of the dark age. Indeed, there was another influence of a totally different character that is too patent to be overlooked–the influence, namely, of the economic condition of western Europe during this period. As I have elsewhere pointed out,[2] Italy, the centre of western civilization, was at this time impoverished, and hence could not provide the monetary stimulus so essential to artistic and scientific no less than to material progress. There were no patrons of science and literature such as the Ptolemies of that elder Alexandrian day. There were no great libraries; no colleges to supply opportunities and afford stimuli to the rising generation. Worst of all, it became increasingly difficult to secure books.

This phase of the subject is often overlooked. Yet a moment’s consideration will show its importance. How should we fare to-day if no new scientific books were being produced, and if the records of former generations were destroyed? That is what actually happened in Europe during the Middle Ages. At an earlier day books were made and distributed much more abundantly than is sometimes supposed. Bookmaking had, indeed, been an important profession in Rome, the actual makers of books being slaves who worked under the direction of a publisher. It was through the efforts of these workers that the classical works in Greek and Latin were multiplied and disseminated. Unfortunately the climate of Europe does not conduce to the indefinite preservation of a book; hence very few remnants of classical works have come down to us in the original from a remote period. The rare exceptions are certain papyrus fragments, found in Egypt, some of which are Greek manuscripts dating from the third century B.C. Even from these sources the output is meagre; and the only other repository of classical books is a single room in the buried city of Herculaneum, which contained several hundred manuscripts, mostly in a charred condition, a considerable number of which, however, have been unrolled and found more or less legible. This library in the buried city was chiefly made up of philosophical works, some of which were quite unknown to the modern world until discovered there.

But this find, interesting as it was from an archaeological stand-point, had no very important bearing on our knowledge of the literature of antiquity. Our chief dependence for our knowledge of that literature must still be placed in such copies of books as were made in the successive generations. Comparatively few of the extant manuscripts are older than the tenth century of our era. It requires but a momentary consideration of the conditions under which ancient books were produced to realize how slow and difficult the process was before the invention of printing. The taste of the book-buying public demanded a clearly written text, and in the Middle Ages it became customary to produce a richly ornamented text as well. The script employed being the prototype of the modern printed text, it will be obvious that a scribe could produce but a few pages at best in a day. A large work would therefore require the labor of a scribe for many months or even for several years. We may assume, then, that it would be a very flourishing publisher who could produce a hundred volumes all told per annum; and probably there were not many publishers at any given time, even in the period of Rome’s greatest glory, who had anything like this output.

As there was a large number of authors in every generation of the classical period, it follows that most of these authors must have been obliged to content themselves with editions numbering very few copies; and it goes without saying that the greater number of books were never reproduced in what might be called a second edition. Even books that retained their popularity for several generations would presently fail to arouse sufficient interest to be copied; and in due course such works would pass out of existence altogether. Doubtless many hundreds of books were thus lost before the close of the classical period, the names of their authors being quite forgotten, or preserved only through a chance reference; and of course the work of elimination went on much more rapidly during the Middle Ages, when the interest in classical literature sank to so low an ebb in the West. Such collections of references and quotations as the Greek Anthology and the famous anthologies of Stobaeus and Athanasius and Eusebius give us glimpses of a host of writers–more than seven hundred are quoted by Stobaeus–a very large proportion of whom are quite unknown except through these brief excerpts from their lost works.

Quite naturally the scientific works suffered at least as largely as any others in an age given over to ecclesiastical dreamings. Yet in some regards there is matter for surprise as to the works preserved. Thus, as we have seen, the very extensive works of Aristotle on natural history, and the equally extensive natural history of Pliny, which were preserved throughout this period, and are still extant, make up relatively bulky volumes. These works seem to have interested the monks of the Middle Ages, while many much more important scientific books were allowed to perish. A considerable bulk of scientific literature was also preserved through the curious channels of Arabic and Armenian translations. Reference has already been made to the Almagest of Ptolemy, which, as we have seen, was translated into Arabic, and which was at a later day brought by the Arabs into western Europe and (at the instance of Frederick II of Sicily) translated out of their language into mediaeval Latin.

It remains to inquire, however, through what channels the Greek works reached the Arabs themselves. To gain an answer to this question we must follow the stream of history from its Roman course eastward to the new seat of the Roman empire in Byzantium. Here civilization centred from about the fifth century A.D., and here the European came in contact with the civilization of the Syrians, the Persians, the Armenians, and finally of the Arabs. The Byzantines themselves, unlike the inhabitants of western Europe, did not ignore the literature of old Greece; the Greek language became the regular speech of the Byzantine people, and their writers made a strenuous effort to perpetuate the idiom and style of the classical period. Naturally they also made transcriptions of the classical authors, and thus a great mass of literature was preserved, while the corresponding works were quite forgotten in western Europe.

Meantime many of these works were translated into Syriac, Armenian, and Persian, and when later on the Byzantine civilization degenerated, many works that were no longer to be had in the Greek originals continued to be widely circulated in Syriac, Persian, Armenian, and, ultimately, in Arabic translations. When the Arabs started out in their conquests, which carried them through Egypt and along the southern coast of the Mediterranean, until they finally invaded Europe from the west by way of Gibraltar, they carried with them their translations of many a Greek classical author, who was introduced anew to the western world through this strange channel.

We are told, for example, that Averrhoes, the famous commentator of Aristotle, who lived in Spain in the twelfth century, did not know a word of Greek and was obliged to gain his knowledge of the master through a Syriac translation; or, as others alleged (denying that he knew even Syriac), through an Arabic version translated from the Syriac. We know, too, that the famous chronology of Eusebius was preserved through an Armenian translation; and reference has more than once been made to the Arabic translation of Ptolemy’s great work, to which we still apply its Arabic title of Almagest.

The familiar story that when the Arabs invaded Egypt they burned the Alexandrian library is now regarded as an invention of later times. It seems much more probable that the library bad been largely scattered before the coming of the Moslems. Indeed, it has even been suggested that the Christians of an earlier day removed the records of pagan thought. Be that as it may, the famous Alexandrian library had disappeared long before the revival of interest in classical learning. Meanwhile, as we have said, the Arabs, far from destroying the western literature, were its chief preservers. Partly at least because of their regard for the records of the creative work of earlier generations of alien peoples, the Arabs were enabled to outstrip their contemporaries. For it cannot be in doubt that, during that long stretch of time when the western world was ignoring science altogether or at most contenting itself with the casual reading of Aristotle and Pliny, the Arabs had the unique distinction of attempting original investigations in science. To them were due all important progressive steps which were made in any scientific field whatever for about a thousand years after the time of Ptolemy and Galen. The progress made even by the Arabs during this long period seems meagre enough, yet it has some significant features. These will now demand our attention.


The successors of Mohammed showed themselves curiously receptive of the ideas of the western people whom they conquered. They came in contact with the Greeks in western Asia and in Egypt, and, as has been said, became their virtual successors in carrying forward the torch of learning. It must not be inferred, however, that the Arabian scholars, as a class, were comparable to their predecessors in creative genius. On the contrary, they retained much of the conservative oriental spirit. They were under the spell of tradition, and, in the main, what they accepted from the Greeks they regarded as almost final in its teaching. There were, however, a few notable exceptions among their men of science, and to these must be ascribed several discoveries of some importance.

The chief subjects that excited the interest and exercised the ingenuity of the Arabian scholars were astronomy, mathematics, and medicine. The practical phases of all these subjects were given particular attention. Thus it is well known that our so-called Arabian numerals date from this period. The revolutionary effect of these characters, as applied to practical mathematics, can hardly be overestimated; but it is generally considered, and in fact was admitted by the Arabs themselves, that these numerals were really borrowed from the Hindoos, with whom the Arabs came in contact on the east. Certain of the Hindoo alphabets, notably that of the Battaks of Sumatra, give us clews to the originals of the numerals. It does not seem certain, however, that the Hindoos employed these characters according to the decimal system, which is the prime element of their importance. Knowledge is not forthcoming as to just when or by whom such application was made. If this was an Arabic innovation, it was perhaps the most important one with which that nation is to be credited. Another mathematical improvement was the introduction into trigonometry of the sine–the half-chord of the double arc–instead of the chord of the arc itself which the Greek astronomers had employed. This improvement was due to the famous Albategnius, whose work in other fields we shall examine in a moment.

Another evidence of practicality was shown in the Arabian method of attempting to advance upon Eratosthenes’ measurement of the earth. Instead of trusting to the measurement of angles, the Arabs decided to measure directly a degree of the earth’s surface–or rather two degrees. Selecting a level plain in Mesopotamia for the experiment, one party of the surveyors progressed northward, another party southward, from a given point to the distance of one degree of arc, as determined by astronomical observations. The result found was fifty-six miles for the northern degree, and fifty-six and two-third miles for the southern. Unfortunately, we do not know the precise length of the mile in question, and therefore cannot be assured as to the accuracy of the measurement. It is interesting to note, however, that the two degrees were found of unequal lengths, suggesting that the earth is not a perfect sphere–a suggestion the validity of which was not to be put to the test of conclusive measurements until about the close of the eighteenth century. The Arab measurement was made in the time of Caliph Abdallah al-Mamun, the son of the famous Harun-al-Rashid. Both father and son were famous for their interest in science. Harun-al-Rashid was, it will be recalled, the friend of Charlemagne. It is said that he sent that ruler, as a token of friendship, a marvellous clock which let fall a metal ball to mark the hours. This mechanism, which is alleged to have excited great wonder in the West, furnishes yet another instance of Arabian practicality.

Perhaps the greatest of the Arabian astronomers was Mohammed ben Jabir Albategnius, or El-batani, who was born at Batan, in Mesopotamia, about the year 850 A.D., and died in 929. Albategnius was a student of the Ptolemaic astronomy, but he was also a practical observer. He made the important discovery of the motion of the solar apogee. That is to say, he found that the position of the sun among the stars, at the time of its greatest distance from the earth, was not what it had been in the time of Ptolemy. The Greek astronomer placed the sun in longitude 65 degrees, but Albategnius found it in longitude 82 degrees, a distance too great to be accounted for by inaccuracy of measurement. The modern inference from this observation is that the solar system is moving through space; but of course this inference could not well be drawn while the earth was regarded as the fixed centre of the universe.

In the eleventh century another Arabian discoverer, Arzachel, observing the sun to be less advanced than Albategnius had found it, inferred incorrectly that the sun had receded in the mean time. The modern explanation of this observation is that the measurement of Albategnius was somewhat in error, since we know that the sun’s motion is steadily progressive. Arzachel, however, accepting the measurement of his predecessor, drew the false inference of an oscillatory motion of the stars, the idea of the motion of the solar system not being permissible. This assumed phenomenon, which really has no existence in point of fact, was named the “trepidation of the fixed stars,” and was for centuries accepted as an actual phenomenon. Arzachel explained this supposed phenomenon by assuming that the equinoctial points, or the points of intersection of the equator and the ecliptic, revolve in circles of eight degrees’ radius. The first points of Aries and Libra were supposed to describe the circumference of these circles in about eight hundred years. All of which illustrates how a difficult and false explanation may take the place of a simple and correct one. The observations of later generations have shown conclusively that the sun’s shift of position is regularly progressive, hence that there is no “trepidation” of the stars and no revolution of the equinoctial points.

If the Arabs were wrong as regards this supposed motion of the fixed stars, they made at least one correct observation as to the inequality of motion of the moon. Two inequalities of the motion of this body were already known. A third, called the moon’s variation, was discovered by an Arabian astronomer who lived at Cairo and observed at Bagdad in 975, and who bore the formidable name of Mohammed Aboul Wefaal-Bouzdjani. The inequality of motion in question, in virtue of which the moon moves quickest when she is at new or full, and slowest at the first and third quarter, was rediscovered by Tycho Brahe six centuries later; a fact which in itself evidences the neglect of the Arabian astronomer’s discovery by his immediate successors.

In the ninth and tenth centuries the Arabian city of Cordova, in Spain, was another important centre of scientific influence. There was a library of several hundred thousand volumes here, and a college where mathematics and astronomy were taught. Granada, Toledo, and Salamanca were also important centres, to which students flocked from western Europe. It was the proximity of these Arabian centres that stimulated the scientific interests of Alfonso X. of Castile, at whose instance the celebrated Alfonsine tables were constructed. A familiar story records that Alfonso, pondering the complications of the Ptolemaic cycles and epicycles, was led to remark that, had he been consulted at the time of creation, he could have suggested a much better and simpler plan for the universe. Some centuries were to elapse before Copernicus was to show that it was not the plan of the universe, but man’s interpretation of it, that was at fault.

Another royal personage who came under Arabian influence was Frederick II. of Sicily–the “Wonder of the World,” as he was called by his contemporaries. The Almagest of Ptolemy was translated into Latin at his instance, being introduced to the Western world through this curious channel. At this time it became quite usual for the Italian and Spanish scholars to understand Arabic although they were totally ignorant of Greek.

In the field of physical science one of the most important of the Arabian scientists was Alhazen. His work, published about the year 1100 A.D., had great celebrity throughout the mediaeval period. The original investigations of Alhazen had to do largely with optics. He made particular studies of the eye itself, and the names given by him to various parts of the eye, as the vitreous humor, the cornea, and the retina, are still retained by anatomists. It is known that Ptolemy had studied the refraction of light, and that he, in common with his immediate predecessors, was aware that atmospheric refraction affects the apparent position of stars near the horizon. Alhazen carried forward these studies, and was led through them to make the first recorded scientific estimate of the phenomena of twilight and of the height of the atmosphere. The persistence of a glow in the atmosphere after the sun has disappeared beneath the horizon is so familiar a phenomenon that the ancient philosophers seem not to have thought of it as requiring an explanation. Yet a moment’s consideration makes it clear that, if light travels in straight lines and the rays of the sun were in no wise deflected, the complete darkness of night should instantly succeed to day when the sun passes below the horizon. That this sudden change does not occur, Alhazen explained as due to the reflection of light by the earth’s atmosphere.

Alhazen appears to have conceived the atmosphere as a sharply defined layer, and, assuming that twilight continues only so long as rays of the sun reflected from the outer surface of this layer can reach the spectator at any given point, he hit upon a means of measurement that seemed to solve the hitherto inscrutable problem as to the atmospheric depth. Like the measurements of Aristarchus and Eratosthenes, this calculation of Alhazen is simple enough in theory. Its defect consists largely in the difficulty of fixing its terms with precision, combined with the further fact that the rays of the sun, in taking the slanting course through the earth’s atmosphere, are really deflected from a straight line in virtue of the constantly increasing density of the air near the earth’s surface. Alhazen must have been aware of this latter fact, since it was known to the later Alexandrian astronomers, but he takes no account of it in the present measurement. The diagram will make the method of Alhazen clear.

His important premises are two: first, the well-recognized fact that, when light is reflected from any surface, the angle of incidence is equal to the angle of reflection; and, second, the much more doubtful observation that twilight continues until such time as the sun, according to a simple calculation, is nineteen degrees below the horizon. Referring to the diagram, let the inner circle represent the earth’s surface, the outer circle the limits of the atmosphere, C being the earth’s centre, and RR radii of the earth. Then the observer at the point A will continue to receive the reflected rays of the sun until that body reaches the point S, which is, according to the hypothesis, nineteen degrees below the horizon line of the observer at A. This horizon line, being represented by AH, and the sun’s ray by SM, the angle HMS is an angle of nineteen degrees. The complementary angle SMA is, obviously, an angle of (180-19) one hundred and sixty-one degrees. But since M is the reflecting surface and the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection, the angle AMC is an angle of one-half of one hundred and sixty-one degrees, or eighty degrees and thirty minutes. Now this angle AMC, being known, the right-angled triangle MAC is easily resolved, since the side AC of that triangle, being the radius of the earth, is a known dimension. Resolution of this triangle gives us the length of the hypotenuse MC, and the difference between this and the radius (AC), or CD, is obviously the height of the atmosphere (h), which was the measurement desired. According to the calculation of Alhazen, this h, or the height of the atmosphere, represents from twenty to thirty miles. The modern computation extends this to about fifty miles. But, considering the various ambiguities that necessarily attended the experiment, the result was a remarkably close approximation to the truth.

Turning from physics to chemistry, we find as perhaps the greatest Arabian name that of Geber, who taught in the College of Seville in the first half of the eighth century. The most important researches of this really remarkable experimenter had to do with the acids. The ancient world had had no knowledge of any acid more powerful than acetic. Geber, however, vastly increased the possibilities of chemical experiment by the discovery of sulphuric, nitric, and nitromuriatic acids. He made use also of the processes of sublimation and filtration, and his works describe the water bath and the chemical oven. Among the important chemicals which he first differentiated is oxide of mercury, and his studies of sulphur in its various compounds have peculiar interest. In particular is this true of his observation that, tinder certain conditions of oxidation, the weight of a metal was lessened.

From the record of these studies in the fields of astronomy, physics, and chemistry, we turn to a somewhat extended survey of the Arabian advances in the field of medicine.


The influence of Arabian physicians rested chiefly upon their use of drugs rather than upon anatomical knowledge. Like the mediaeval Christians, they looked with horror on dissection of the human body; yet there were always among them investigators who turned constantly to nature herself for hidden truths, and were ready to uphold the superiority of actual observation to mere reading. Thus the physician Abd el-Letif, while in Egypt, made careful studies of a mound of bones containing more than twenty thousand skeletons. While examining these bones he discovered that the lower jaw consists of a single bone, not of two, as had been taught by Galen. He also discovered several other important mistakes in Galenic anatomy, and was so impressed with his discoveries that he contemplated writing a work on anatomy which should correct the great classical authority’s mistakes.

It was the Arabs who invented the apothecary, and their pharmacopoeia, issued from the hospital at Gondisapor, and elaborated from time to time, formed the basis for Western pharmacopoeias. Just how many drugs originated with them, and how many were borrowed from the Hindoos, Jews, Syrians, and Persians, cannot be determined. It is certain, however, that through them various new and useful drugs, such as senna, aconite, rhubarb, camphor, and mercury, were handed down through the Middle Ages, and that they are responsible for the introduction of alcohol in the field of therapeutics.

In mediaeval Europe, Arabian science came to be regarded with superstitious awe, and the works of certain Arabian physicians were exalted to a position above all the ancient writers. In modern times, however, there has been a reaction and a tendency to depreciation of their work. By some they are held to be mere copyists or translators of Greek books, and in no sense original investigators in medicine. Yet there can be little doubt that while the Arabians did copy and translate freely, they also originated and added considerably to medical knowledge. It is certain that in the time when Christian monarchs in western Europe were paying little attention to science or education, the caliphs and vizirs were encouraging physicians and philosophers, building schools, and erecting libraries and hospitals. They made at least a creditable effort to uphold and advance upon the scientific standards of an earlier age.

The first distinguished Arabian physician was Harets ben Kaladah, who received his education in the Nestonian school at Gondisapor, about the beginning of the seventh century. Notwithstanding the fact that Harets was a Christian, he was chosen by Mohammed as his chief medical adviser, and recommended as such to his successor, the Caliph Abu Bekr. Thus, at the very outset, the science of medicine was divorced from religion among the Arabians; for if the prophet himself could employ the services of an unbeliever, surely others might follow his example. And that this example was followed is shown in the fact that many Christian physicians were raised to honorable positions by succeeding generations of Arabian monarchs. This broad-minded view of medicine taken by the Arabs undoubtedly assisted as much as any one single factor in upbuilding the science, just as the narrow and superstitious view taken by Western nations helped to destroy it.

The education of the Arabians made it natural for them to associate medicine with the natural sciences, rather than with religion. An Arabian savant was supposed to be equally well educated in philosophy, jurisprudence, theology, mathematics, and medicine, and to practise law, theology, and medicine with equal skill upon occasion. It is easy to understand, therefore, why these religious fanatics were willing to employ unbelieving physicians, and their physicians themselves to turn to the scientific works of Hippocrates and Galen for medical instruction, rather than to religious works. Even Mohammed himself professed some knowledge of medicine, and often relied upon this knowledge in treating ailments rather than upon prayers or incantations. He is said, for example, to have recommended and applied the cautery in the case of a friend who, when suffering from angina, had sought his aid.

The list of eminent Arabian physicians is too long to be given here, but some of them are of such importance in their influence upon later medicine that they cannot be entirely ignored. One of the first of these was Honain ben Isaac (809-873 A.D.), a Christian Arab of Bagdad. He made translations of the works of Hippocrates, and practised the art along the lines indicated by his teachings and those of Galen. He is considered the greatest translator of the ninth century and one of the greatest philosophers of that period.

Another great Arabian physician, whose work was just beginning as Honain’s was drawing to a close, was Rhazes (850-923 A.D.), who during his life was no less noted as a philosopher and musician than as a physician. He continued the work of Honain, and advanced therapeutics by introducing more extensive use of chemical remedies, such as mercurial ointments, sulphuric acid, and aqua vitae. He is also credited with being the first physician to describe small-pox and measles accurately.

While Rhazes was still alive another Arabian, Haly Abbas (died about 994), was writing his famous encyclopaedia of medicine, called The Royal Book. But the names of all these great physicians have been considerably obscured by the reputation of Avicenna (980-1037), the Arabian “Prince of Physicians,” the greatest name in Arabic medicine, and one of the most remarkable men in history. Leclerc says that “he was perhaps never surpassed by any man in brilliancy of intellect and indefatigable activity.” His career was a most varied one. He was at all times a boisterous reveller, but whether flaunting gayly among the guests of an emir or biding in some obscure apothecary cellar, his work of philosophical writing was carried on steadily. When a friendly emir was in power, he taught and wrote and caroused at court; but between times, when some unfriendly ruler was supreme, he was hiding away obscurely, still pouring out his great mass of manuscripts. In this way his entire life was spent.

By his extensive writings he revived and kept alive the best of the teachings of the Greek physicians, adding to them such observations as he had made in anatomy, physiology, and materia medica. Among his discoveries is that of the contagiousness of pulmonary tuberculosis. His works for several centuries continued to be looked upon as the highest standard by physicians, and he should undoubtedly be credited with having at least retarded the decline of mediaeval medicine.

But it was not the Eastern Arabs alone who were active in the field of medicine. Cordova, the capital of the western caliphate, became also a great centre of learning and produced several great physicians. One of these, Albucasis (died in 1013 A.D.), is credited with having published the first illustrated work on surgery, this book being remarkable in still another way, in that it was also the first book, since classical times, written from the practical experience of the physician, and not a mere compilation of ancient authors. A century after Albucasis came the great physician Avenzoar (1113-1196), with whom he divides about equally the medical honors of the western caliphate. Among Avenzoar’s discoveries was that of the cause of “itch”–a little parasite, “so small that he is hardly visible.” The discovery of the cause of this common disease seems of minor importance now, but it is of interest in medical history because, had Avenzoar’s discovery been remembered a hundred years ago, “itch struck in” could hardly have been considered the cause of three-fourths of all diseases, as it was by the famous Hahnemann.

The illustrious pupil of Avenzoar, Averrhoes, who died in 1198 A.D., was the last of the great Arabian physicians who, by rational conception of medicine, attempted to stem the flood of superstition that was overwhelming medicine. For a time he succeeded; but at last the Moslem theologians prevailed, and he was degraded and banished to a town inhabited only by the despised Jews.


To early Christians belong the credit of having established the first charitable institutions for caring for the sick; but their efforts were soon eclipsed by both Eastern and Western Mohammedans. As early as the eighth century the Arabs had begun building hospitals, but the flourishing time of hospital building seems to have begun early in the tenth century. Lady Seidel, in 918 A.D., opened a hospital at Bagdad, endowed with an amount corresponding to about three hundred pounds sterling a month. Other similar hospitals were erected in the years immediately following, and in 977 the Emir Adad-adaula established an enormous institution with a staff of twenty-four medical officers. The great physician Rhazes is said to have selected the site for one of these hospitals by hanging pieces of meat in various places about the city, selecting the site near the place at which putrefaction was slowest in making its appearance. By the middle of the twelfth century there were something like sixty medical institutions in Bagdad alone, and these institutions were free to all patients and supported by official charity.

The Emir Nureddin, about the year 1160, founded a great hospital at Damascus, as a thank-offering for his victories over the Crusaders. This great institution completely overshadowed all the earlier Moslem hospitals in size and in the completeness of its equipment. It was furnished with facilities for teaching, and was conducted for several centuries in a lavish manner, regardless of expense. But little over a century after its foundation the fame of its methods of treatment led to the establishment of a larger and still more luxurious institution–the Mansuri hospital at Cairo. It seems that a certain sultan, having been cured by medicines from the Damascene hospital, determined to build one of his own at Cairo which should eclipse even the great Damascene institution.

In a single year (1283-1284) this hospital was begun and completed. No efforts were spared in hurrying on the good work, and no one was exempt from performing labor on the building if he chanced to pass one of the adjoining streets. It was the order of the sultan that any person passing near could be impressed into the work, and this order was carried out to the letter, noblemen and beggars alike being forced to lend a hand. Very naturally, the adjacent thoroughfares became unpopular and practically deserted, but still the holy work progressed rapidly and was shortly completed.

This immense structure is said to have contained four courts, each having a fountain in the centre; lecture-halls, wards for isolating certain diseases, and a department that corresponded to the modern hospital’s “out-patient” department. The yearly endowment amounted to something like the equivalent of one hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars. A novel feature was a hall where musicians played day and night, and another where story-tellers were employed, so that persons troubled with insomnia were amused and melancholiacs cheered. Those of a religious turn of mind could listen to readings of the Koran, conducted continuously by a staff of some fifty chaplains. Each patient on leaving the hospital received some gold pieces, that he need not be obliged to attempt hard labor at once.

In considering the astonishing tales of these sumptuous Arabian institutions, it should be borne in mind that our accounts of them are, for the most part, from Mohammedan sources. Nevertheless, there can be little question that they were enormous institutions, far surpassing any similar institutions in western Europe. The so-called hospitals in the West were, at this time, branches of monasteries under supervision of the monks, and did not compare favorably with the Arabian hospitals.

But while the medical science of the Mohammedans greatly overshadowed that of the Christians during this period, it did not completely obliterate it. About the year 1000 A.D. came into prominence the Christian medical school at Salerno, situated on the Italian coast, some thirty miles southeast of Naples. Just how long this school had been in existence, or by whom it was founded, cannot be determined, but its period of greatest influence was the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries. The members of this school gradually adopted Arabic medicine, making use of many drugs from the Arabic pharmacopoeia, and this formed one of the stepping-stones to the introduction of Arabian medicine all through western Europe.

It was not the adoption of Arabian medicines, however, that has made the school at Salerno famous both in rhyme and prose, but rather the fact that women there practised the healing art. Greatest among them was Trotula, who lived in the eleventh century, and whose learning is reputed to have equalled that of the greatest physicians of the day. She is accredited with a work on Diseases of Women, still extant, and many of her writings on general medical subjects were quoted through two succeeding centuries. If we may judge from these writings, she seemed to have had many excellent ideas as to the proper methods of treating diseases, but it is difficult to determine just which of the writings credited to her are in reality hers. Indeed, the uncertainty is even greater than this implies, for, according to some writers, “Trotula” is merely the title of a book. Such an authority as Malgaigne, however, believed that such a woman existed, and that the works accredited to her are authentic. The truth of the matter may perhaps never be fully established, but this at least is certain–the tradition in regard to Trotula could never have arisen had not women held a far different position among the Arabians of this period from that accorded them in contemporary Christendom.


We have previously referred to the influence of the Byzantine civilization in transmitting the learning of antiquity across the abysm of the dark age. It must be admitted, however, that the importance of that civilization did not extend much beyond the task of the common carrier. There were no great creative scientists in the later Roman empire of the East any more than in the corresponding empire of the West. There was, however, one field in which the Byzantine made respectable progress and regarding which their efforts require a few words of special comment. This was the field of medicine.

The Byzantines of this time could boast of two great medical men, Aetius of Amida (about 502-575 A.D.) and Paul of Aegina (about 620-690). The works of Aetius were of value largely because they recorded the teachings of many of his eminent predecessors, but he was not entirely lacking in originality, and was perhaps the first physician to mention diphtheria, with an allusion to some observations of the paralysis of the palate which sometimes follows this disease.

Paul of Aegina, who came from the Alexandrian school about a century later, was one of those remarkable men whose ideas are centuries ahead of their time. This was particularly true of Paul in regard to surgery, and his attitude towards the supernatural in the causation and treatment of diseases. He was essentially a surgeon, being particularly familiar with military surgery, and some of his descriptions of complicated and difficult operations have been little improved upon even in modern times. In his books he describes such operations as the removal of foreign bodies from the nose, ear, and esophagus; and he recognizes foreign growths such as polypi in the air-passages, and gives the method of their removal. Such operations as tracheotomy, tonsellotomy, bronchotomy, staphylotomy, etc., were performed by him, and he even advocated and described puncture of the abdominal cavity, giving careful directions as to the location in which such punctures should be made. He advocated amputation of the breast for the cure of cancer, and described extirpation of the uterus. Just how successful this last operation may have been as performed by him does not appear; but he would hardly have recommended it if it had not been sometimes, at least, successful. That he mentions it at all, however, is significant, as this difficult operation is considered one of the great triumphs of modern surgery.

But Paul of Aegina is a striking exception to the rule among Byzantine surgeons, and as he was their greatest, so he was also their last important surgeon. The energies of all Byzantium were so expended in religious controversies that medicine, like the other sciences, was soon relegated to a place among the other superstitions, and the influence of the Byzantine school was presently replaced by that of the conquering Arabians.


The thirteenth century marks the beginning of a gradual change in medicine, and a tendency to leave the time-worn rut of superstitious dogmas that so long retarded the progress of science. It is thought that the great epidemics which raged during the Middle Ages acted powerfully in diverting the medical thought of the times into new and entirely different channels. It will be remembered that the teachings of Galen were handed through mediaeval times as the highest and best authority on the subject of all diseases. When, however, the great epidemics made their appearance, the medical men appealed to the works of Galen in vain for enlightenment, as these works, having been written several centuries before the time of the plagues, naturally contained no information concerning them. It was evident, therefore, that on this subject, at least, Galen was not infallible; and it would naturally follow that, one fallible point having been revealed, others would be sought for. In other words, scepticism in regard to accepted methods would be aroused, and would lead naturally, as such scepticism usually does, to progress. The devastating effects of these plagues, despite prayers and incantations, would arouse doubt in the minds of many as to the efficacy of superstitious rites and ceremonies in curing diseases. They had seen thousands and tens of thousands of their fellow-beings swept away by these awful scourges. They had seen the ravages of these epidemics continue for months or even years, notwithstanding the fact that multitudes of God-fearing people prayed hourly that such ravages might be checked. And they must have observed also that when even very simple rules of cleanliness and hygiene were followed there was a diminution in the ravages of the plague, even without the aid of incantations. Such observations as these would have a tendency to awaken a suspicion in the minds of many of the physicians that disease was not a manifestation of the supernatural, but a natural phenomenon, to be treated by natural methods.

But, be the causes what they may, it is a fact that the thirteenth century marks a turning-point, or the beginning of an attitude of mind which resulted in bringing medicine to a much more rational position. Among the thirteenth-century physicians, two men are deserving of special mention. These are Arnald of Villanova (1235-1312) and Peter of Abano (1250-1315). Both these men suffered persecution for expressing their belief in natural, as against the supernatural, causes of disease, and at one time Arnald was obliged to flee from Barcelona for declaring that the “bulls” of popes were human works, and that “acts of charity were dearer to God than hecatombs.” He was also accused of alchemy. Fleeing from persecution, he finally perished by shipwreck.

Arnald was the first great representative of the school of Montpellier. He devoted much time to the study of chemicals, and was active in attempting to re-establish the teachings of Hippocrates and Galen. He was one of the first of a long line of alchemists who, for several succeeding centuries, expended so much time and energy in attempting to find the “elixir of life.” The Arab discovery of alcohol first deluded him into the belief that the “elixir” had at last been found; but later he discarded it and made extensive experiments with brandy, employing it in the treatment of certain diseases–the first record of the administration of this liquor as a medicine. Arnald also revived the search for some anaesthetic that would produce insensibility to pain in surgical operations. This idea was not original with him, for since very early times physicians had attempted to discover such an anaesthetic, and even so early a writer as Herodotus tells how the Scythians, by inhalation of the vapors of some kind of hemp, produced complete insensibility. It may have been these writings that stimulated Arnald to search for such an anaesthetic. In a book usually credited to him, medicines are named and methods of administration described which will make the patient insensible to pain, so that “he may be cut and feel nothing, as though he were dead.” For this purpose a mixture of opium, mandragora, and henbane is to be used. This mixture was held at the patient’s nostrils much as ether and chloroform are administered by the modern surgeon. The method was modified by Hugo of Lucca (died in 1252 or 1268), who added certain other narcotics, such as hemlock, to the mixture, and boiled a new sponge in this decoction. After boiling for a certain time, this sponge was dried, and when wanted for use was dipped in hot water and applied to the nostrils.

Just how frequently patients recovered from the administration of such a combination of powerful poisons does not appear, but the percentage of deaths must have been very high, as the practice was generally condemned. Insensibility could have been produced only by swallowing large quantities of the liquid, which dripped into the nose and mouth when the sponge was applied, and a lethal quantity might thus be swallowed. The method was revived, with various modifications, from time to time, but as often fell into disuse. As late as 1782 it was sometimes attempted, and in that year the King of Poland is said to have been completely anaesthetized and to have recovered, after a painless amputation had been performed by the surgeons.

Peter of Abano was one of the first great men produced by the University of Padua. His fate would have been even more tragic than that of the shipwrecked Arnald had he not cheated the purifying fagots of the church by dying opportunely on the eve of his execution for heresy. But if his spirit had cheated the fanatics, his body could not, and his bones were burned for his heresy. He had dared to deny the existence of a devil, and had suggested that the case of a patient who lay in a trance for three days might help to explain some miracles, like the raising of Lazarus.

His great work was Conciliator Differentiarum, an attempt to reconcile physicians and philosophers. But his researches were not confined to medicine, for he seems to have had an inkling of the hitherto unknown fact that air possesses weight, and his calculation of the length of the year at three hundred and sixty-five days, six hours, and four minutes, is exceptionally accurate for the age in which he lived. He was probably the first of the Western writers to teach that the brain is the source of the nerves, and the heart the source of the vessels. From this it is seen that he was groping in the direction of an explanation of the circulation of the blood, as demonstrated by Harvey three centuries later.

The work of Arnald and Peter of Abano in “reviving” medicine was continued actively by Mondino (1276-1326) of Bologna, the “restorer of anatomy,” and by Guy of Chauliac: (born about 1300), the “restorer of surgery.” All through the early Middle Ages dissections of human bodies had been forbidden, and even dissection of the lower animals gradually fell into disrepute because physicians detected in such practices were sometimes accused of sorcery. Before the close of the thirteenth century, however, a reaction had begun, physicians were protected, and dissections were occasionally sanctioned by the ruling monarch. Thus Emperor Frederick H. (1194-1250 A.D.)–whose services to science we have already had occasion to mention–ordered that at least one human body should be dissected by physicians in his kingdom every five years. By the time of Mondino dissections were becoming more frequent, and he himself is known to have dissected and demonstrated several bodies. His writings on anatomy have been called merely plagiarisms of Galen, but in all probability be made many discoveries independently, and on the whole, his work may be taken as more advanced than Galen’s. His description of the heart is particularly accurate, and he seems to have come nearer to determining the course of the blood in its circulation than any of his predecessors. In this quest he was greatly handicapped by the prevailing belief in the idea that blood-vessels must contain air as well as blood, and this led him to assume that one of the cavities of the heart contained “spirits,” or air. It is probable, however, that his accurate observations, so far as they went, were helpful stepping-stones to Harvey in his discovery of the circulation.

Guy of Chauliac, whose innovations in surgery reestablished that science on a firm basis, was not only one of the most cultured, but also the most practical surgeon of his time. He had great reverence for the works of Galen, Albucasis, and others of his noted predecessors; but this reverence did not blind him to their mistakes nor prevent him from using rational methods of treatment far in advance of theirs. His practicality is shown in some of his simple but useful inventions for the sick-room, such as the device of a rope, suspended from the ceiling over the bed, by which a patient may move himself about more easily; and in some of his improvements in surgical dressings, such as stiffening bandages by dipping them in the white of an egg so that they are held firmly. He treated broken limbs in the suspended cradle still in use, and introduced the method of making “traction” on a broken limb by means of a weight and pulley, to prevent deformity through shortening of the member. He was one of the first physicians to recognize the utility of spectacles, and recommended them in cases not amenable to treatment with lotions and eye-waters. In some of his surgical operations, such as trephining for fracture of the skull, his technique has been little improved upon even in modern times. In one of these operations he successfully removed a portion of a man’s brain.

Surgery was undoubtedly stimulated greatly at this period by the constant wars. Lay physicians, as a class, had been looked down upon during the Dark Ages; but with the beginning of the return to rationalism, the services of surgeons on the battle-field, to remove missiles from wounds, and to care for wounds and apply dressings, came to be more fully appreciated. In return for his labors the surgeon was thus afforded better opportunities for observing wounds and diseases, which led naturally to a gradual improvement in surgical methods.


The thirteenth and fourteenth centuries had seen some slight advancement in the science of medicine; at least, certain surgeons and physicians, if not the generality, had made advances; but it was not until the fifteenth century that the general revival of medical learning became assured. In this movement, naturally, the printing-press played an all-important part. Medical books, hitherto practically inaccessible to the great mass of physicians, now became common, and this output of reprints of Greek and Arabic treatises revealed the fact that many of the supposed true copies were spurious. These discoveries very naturally aroused all manner of doubt and criticism, which in turn helped in the development of independent thought.

A certain manuscript of the great Cornelius Celsus, the De Medicine, which had been lost for many centuries, was found in the church of St. Ambrose, at Milan, in 1443, and was at once put into print. The effect of the publication of this book, which had lain in hiding for so many centuries, was a revelation, showing the medical profession how far most of their supposed true copies of Celsus had drifted away from the original. The indisputable authenticity of this manuscript, discovered and vouched for by the man who shortly after became Pope Nicholas V., made its publication the more impressive. The output in book form of other authorities followed rapidly, and the manifest discrepancies between such teachers as Celsus, Hippocrates, Galen, and Pliny heightened still more the growing spirit of criticism.

These doubts resulted in great controversies as to the proper treatment of certain diseases, some physicians following Hippocrates, others Galen or Celsus, still others the Arabian masters. One of the most bitter of these contests was over the question of “revulsion,” and “derivation”–that is, whether in cases of pleurisy treated by bleeding, the venesection should be made at a point distant from the seat of the disease, as held by the “revulsionists,” or at a point nearer and on the same side of the body, as practised by the “derivationists.” That any great point for discussion could be raised in the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries on so simple a matter as it seems to-day shows how necessary to the progress of medicine was the discovery of the circulation of the blood made by Harvey two centuries later. After Harvey’s discovery no such discussion could have been possible, because this discovery made it evident that as far as the general effect upon the circulation is concerned, it made little difference whether the bleeding was done near a diseased part or remote from it. But in the sixteenth century this question was the all-absorbing one among the doctors. At one time the faculty of Paris condemned “derivation”; but the supporters of this method carried the war still higher, and Emperor Charles V. himself was appealed to. He reversed the decision of the Paris faculty, and decided in favor of “derivation.” His decision was further supported by Pope Clement VII., although the discussion dragged on until cut short by Harvey’s discovery.

But a new form of injury now claimed the attention of the surgeons, something that could be decided by neither Greek nor Arabian authors, as the treatment of gun-shot wounds was, for obvious reasons, not given in their writings. About this time, also, came the great epidemics, “the sweating sickness” and scurvy; and upon these subjects, also, the Greeks and Arabians were silent. John of Vigo, in his book, the Practica Copiosa, published in 1514, and repeated in many editions, became the standard authority on all these subjects, and thus supplanted the works of the ancient writers.

According to Vigo, gun-shot wounds differed from the wounds made by ordinary weapons–that is, spear, arrow, sword, or axe–in that the bullet, being round, bruised rather than cut its way through the tissues; it burned the flesh; and, worst of all, it poisoned it. Vigo laid especial stress upon treating this last condition, recommending the use of the cautery or the oil of elder, boiling hot. It is little wonder that gun-shot wounds were so likely to prove fatal. Yet, after all, here was the germ of the idea of antisepsis.


We have dwelt thus at length on the subject of medical science, because it was chiefly in this field that progress was made in the Western world during the mediaeval period, and because these studies furnished the point of departure for the revival all along the line. It will be understood, however, from what was stated in the preceding chapter, that the Arabian influences in particular were to some extent making themselves felt along other lines. The opportunity afforded a portion of the Western world–notably Spain and Sicily –to gain access to the scientific ideas of antiquity through Arabic translations could not fail of influence. Of like character, and perhaps even more pronounced in degree, was the influence wrought by the Byzantine refugees, who, when Constantinople began to be threatened by the Turks, migrated to the West in considerable numbers, bringing with them a knowledge of Greek literature and a large number of precious works which for centuries had been quite forgotten or absolutely ignored in Italy. Now Western scholars began to take an interest in the Greek language, which had been utterly neglected since the beginning of the Middle Ages. Interesting stories are told of the efforts made by such men as Cosmo de’ Medici to gain possession of classical manuscripts. The revival of learning thus brought about had its first permanent influence in the fields of literature and art, but its effect on science could not be long delayed. Quite independently of the Byzantine influence, however, the striving for better intellectual things had manifested itself in many ways before the close of the thirteenth century. An illustration of this is found in the almost simultaneous development of centres of teaching, which developed into the universities of Italy, France, England, and, a little later, of Germany.

The regular list of studies that came to be adopted everywhere comprised seven nominal branches, divided into two groups–the so-called quadrivium, comprising music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy; and the trivium comprising grammar, rhetoric, and logic. The vagueness of implication of some of these branches gave opportunity to the teacher for the promulgation of almost any knowledge of which he might be possessed, but there can be no doubt that, in general, science had but meagre share in the curriculum. In so far as it was given representation, its chief field must have been Ptolemaic astronomy. The utter lack of scientific thought and scientific method is illustrated most vividly in the works of the greatest men of that period–such men as Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventura, and the hosts of other scholastics of lesser rank. Yet the mental awakening implied in their efforts was sure to extend to other fields, and in point of fact there was at least one contemporary of these great scholastics whose mind was intended towards scientific subjects, and who produced writings strangely at variance in tone and in content with the others. This anachronistic thinker was the English monk, Roger Bacon.


Bacon was born in 1214 and died in 1292. By some it is held that he was not appreciated in his own time because he was really a modern scientist living in an age two centuries before modern science or methods of modern scientific thinking were known. Such an estimate, however, is a manifest exaggeration of the facts, although there is probably a grain of truth in it withal. His learning certainly brought him into contact with the great thinkers of the time, and his writings caused him to be imprisoned by his fellow-churchmen at different times, from which circumstances we may gather that he was advanced thinker, even if not a modern scientist.

Although Bacon was at various times in durance, or under surveillance, and forbidden to write, he was nevertheless a marvellously prolific writer, as is shown by the numerous books and unpublished manuscripts of his still extant. His master-production was the Opus Majus. In Part IV. of this work he attempts to show that all sciences rest ultimately on mathematics; but Part V., which treats of perspective, is of particular interest to modern scientists, because in this he discusses reflection and refraction, and the properties of mirrors and lenses. In this part, also, it is evident that he is making use of such Arabian writers as Alkindi and Alhazen, and this is of especial interest, since it has been used by his detractors, who accuse him of lack of originality, to prove that his seeming inventions and discoveries were in reality adaptations of the Arab scientists. It is difficult to determine just how fully such criticisms are justified. It is certain, however, that in this part he describes the anatomy of the eye with great accuracy, and discusses mirrors and lenses.

The magnifying power of the segment of a glass sphere had been noted by Alhazen, who had observed also that the magnification was increased by increasing the size of the segment used. Bacon took up the discussion of the comparative advantages of segments, and in this discussion seems to show that he understood how to trace the progress of the rays of light through a spherical transparent body, and how to determine the place of the image. He also described a method of constructing a telescope, but it is by no means clear that he had ever actually constructed such an instrument. It is also a mooted question as to whether his instructions as to the construction of such an instrument would have enabled any one to construct one. The vagaries of the names of terms as he uses them allow such latitude in interpretation that modern scientists are not agreed as to the practicability of Bacon’s suggestions. For example, he constantly refers to force under such names as virtus, species, imago, agentis, and a score of other names, and this naturally gives rise to the great differences in the interpretations of his writings, with corresponding differences in estimates of them.

The claim that Bacon originated the use of lenses, in the form of spectacles, cannot be proven. Smith has determined that as early as the opening years of the fourteenth century such lenses were in use, but this proves nothing as regards Bacon’s connection with their invention. The knowledge of lenses seems to be very ancient, if we may judge from the convex lens of rock crystal found by Layard in his excavations at Nimrud. There is nothing to show, however, that the ancients ever thought of using them to correct defects of vision. Neither, apparently, is it feasible to determine whether the idea of such an application originated with Bacon.

Another mechanical discovery about which there has been a great deal of discussion is Bacon’s supposed invention of gunpowder. It appears that in a certain passage of his work he describes the process of making a substance that is, in effect, ordinary gunpowder; but it is more than doubtful whether he understood the properties of the substance he describes. It is fairly well established, however, that in Bacon’s time gunpowder was known to the Arabs, so that it should not be surprising to find references made to it in Bacon’s work, since there is reason to believe that he constantly consulted Arabian writings.

The great merit of Bacon’s work, however, depends on the principles taught as regards experiment and the observation of nature, rather than on any single invention. He had the all-important idea of breaking with tradition. He championed unfettered inquiry in every field of thought. He had the instinct of a scientific worker–a rare instinct indeed in that age. Nor need we doubt that to the best of his opportunities he was himself an original investigator.


The relative infertility of Bacon’s thought is shown by the fact that he founded no school and left no trace of discipleship. The entire century after his death shows no single European name that need claim the attention of the historian of science. In the latter part of the fifteenth century, however, there is evidence of a renaissance of science no less than of art. The German Muller became famous under the latinized named of Regio Montanus (1437-1472), although his actual scientific attainments would appear to have been important only in comparison with the utter ignorance of his contemporaries. The most distinguished worker of the new era was the famous Italian Leonardo da Vinci–a man who has been called by Hamerton the most universal genius that ever lived. Leonardo’s position in the history of art is known to every one. With that, of course, we have no present concern; but it is worth our while to inquire at some length as to the famous painter’s accomplishments as a scientist.

From a passage in the works of Leonardo, first brought to light by Venturi,[1] it would seem that the great painter anticipated Copernicus in determining the movement of the earth. He made mathematical calculations to prove this, and appears to have reached the definite conclusion that the earth does move–or what amounts to the same thing, that the sun does not move. Muntz is authority for the statement that in one of his writings he declares, “Il sole non si mouve”–the sun does not move.[2]

Among his inventions is a dynamometer for determining the traction power of machines and animals, and his experiments with steam have led some of his enthusiastic partisans to claim for him priority to Watt in the invention of the steam-engine. In these experiments, however, Leonardo seems to have advanced little beyond Hero of Alexandria and his steam toy. Hero’s steam-engine did nothing but rotate itself by virtue of escaping jets of steam forced from the bent tubes, while Leonardo’s “steam-engine” “drove a ball weighing one talent over a distance of six stadia.” In a manuscript now in the library of the Institut de France, Da Vinci describes this engine minutely. The action of this machine was due to the sudden conversion of small quantities of water into steam (“smoke,” as he called it) by coming suddenly in contact with a heated surface in a proper receptacle, the rapidly formed steam acting as a propulsive force after the manner of an explosive. It is really a steam-gun, rather than a steam-engine, and it is not unlikely that the study of the action of gunpowder may have suggested it to Leonardo.

It is believed that Leonardo is the true discoverer of the camera-obscura, although the Neapolitan philosopher, Giambattista Porta, who was not born until some twenty years after the death of Leonardo, is usually credited with first describing this device. There is little doubt, however, that Da Vinci understood the principle of this mechanism, for he describes how such a camera can be made by cutting a small, round hole through the shutter of a darkened room, the reversed image of objects outside being shown on the opposite wall.

Like other philosophers in all ages, he had observed a great number of facts which he was unable to explain correctly. But such accumulations of scientific observations are always interesting, as showing how many centuries of observation frequently precede correct explanation. He observed many facts about sounds, among others that blows struck upon a bell produced sympathetic sounds in a bell of the same kind; and that striking the string of a lute produced vibration in corresponding strings of lutes strung to the same pitch. He knew, also, that sounds could be heard at a distance at sea by listening at one end of a tube, the other end of which was placed in the water; and that the same expedient worked successfully on land, the end of the tube being placed against the ground.

The knowledge of this great number of unexplained facts is often interpreted by the admirers of Da Vinci, as showing an almost occult insight into science many centuries in advance of his time. Such interpretations, however, are illusive. The observation, for example, that a tube placed against the ground enables one to hear movements on the earth at a distance, is not in itself evidence of anything more than acute scientific observation, as a similar method is in use among almost every race of savages, notably the American Indians. On the other hand, one is inclined to give credence to almost any story of the breadth of knowledge of the man who came so near anticipating Hutton, Lyell, and Darwin in his interpretation of the geological records as he found them written on the rocks.

It is in this field of geology that Leonardo is entitled to the greatest admiration by modern scientists. He had observed the deposit of fossil shells in various strata of rocks, even on the tops of mountains, and he rejected once for all the theory that they had been deposited there by the Deluge. He rightly interpreted their presence as evidence that they had once been deposited at the bottom of the sea. This process he assumed bad taken hundreds and thousands of centuries, thus tacitly rejecting the biblical tradition as to the date of the creation.

Notwithstanding the obvious interest that attaches to the investigations of Leonardo, it must be admitted that his work in science remained almost as infertile as that of his great precursor, Bacon. The really stimulative work of this generation was done by a man of affairs, who knew little of theoretical science except in one line, but who pursued that one practical line until he achieved a wonderful result. This man was Christopher Columbus. It is not necessary here to tell the trite story of his accomplishment. Suffice it that his practical demonstration of the rotundity of the earth is regarded by most modern writers as marking an epoch in history. With the year of his voyage the epoch of the Middle Ages is usually regarded as coming to an end. It must not be supposed that any very sudden change came over the aspect of scholarship of the time, but the preliminaries of great things had been achieved, and when Columbus made his famous voyage in 1492, the man was already alive who was to bring forward the first great vitalizing thought in the field of pure science that the Western world had originated for more than a thousand years. This man bore the name of Kopernik, or in its familiar Anglicized form, Copernicus. His life work and that of his disciples will claim our attention in the succeeding chapter.


We have seen that the Ptolemaic astronomy, which was the accepted doctrine throughout the Middle Ages, taught that the earth is round. Doubtless there was a popular opinion current which regarded the earth as flat, but it must be understood that this opinion had no champions among men of science during the Middle Ages. When, in the year 1492, Columbus sailed out to the west on his memorable voyage, his expectation of reaching India had full scientific warrant, however much it may have been scouted by certain ecclesiastics and by the average man of the period. Nevertheless, we may well suppose that the successful voyage of Columbus, and the still more demonstrative one made about thirty years later by Magellan, gave the theory of the earth’s rotundity a certainty it could never previously have had. Alexandrian geographers had measured the size of the earth, and had not hesitated to assert that by sailing westward one might reach India. But there is a wide gap between theory and practice, and it required the voyages of Columbus and his successors to bridge that gap.

After the companions of Magellan completed the circumnavigation of the globe, the general shape of our earth would, obviously, never again be called in question. But demonstration of the sphericity of the earth had, of course, no direct bearing upon the question of the earth’s position in the universe. Therefore the voyage of Magellan served to fortify, rather than to dispute, the Ptolemaic theory. According to that theory, as we have seen, the earth was supposed to lie immovable at the centre of the universe; the various heavenly bodies, including the sun, revolving about it in eccentric circles. We have seen that several of the ancient Greeks, notably Aristarchus, disputed this conception, declaring for the central position of the sun in the universe, and the motion of the earth and other planets about that body. But this revolutionary theory seemed so opposed to the ordinary observation that, having been discountenanced by Hipparchus and Ptolemy, it did not find a single important champion for more than a thousand years after the time of the last great Alexandrian astronomer.

The first man, seemingly, to hark back to the Aristarchian conception in the new scientific era that was now dawning was the noted cardinal, Nikolaus of Cusa, who lived in the first half of the fifteenth century, and was distinguished as a philosophical writer and mathematician. His De Docta Ignorantia expressly propounds the doctrine of the earth’s motion. No one, however, paid the slightest attention to his suggestion, which, therefore, merely serves to furnish us with another interesting illustration of the futility of propounding even a correct hypothesis before the time is ripe to receive it–particularly if the hypothesis is not fully fortified by reasoning based on experiment or observation.

The man who was destined to put forward the theory of the earth’s motion in a way to command attention was born in 1473, at the village of Thorn, in eastern Prussia. His name was Nicholas Copernicus. There is no more famous name in the entire annals of science than this, yet posterity has never been able fully to establish the lineage of the famous expositor of the true doctrine of the solar system. The city of Thorn lies in a province of that border territory which was then under control of Poland, but which subsequently became a part of Prussia. It is claimed that the aspects of the city were essentially German, and it is admitted that the mother of Copernicus belonged to that race. The nationality of the father is more in doubt, but it is urged that Copernicus used German as his mother-tongue. His great work was, of course, written in Latin, according to the custom of the time; but it is said that, when not employing that language, he always wrote in German. The disputed nationality of Copernicus strongly suggests that he came of a mixed racial lineage, and we are reminded again of the influences of those ethnical minglings to which we have previously more than once referred. The acknowledged centres of civilization towards the close of the fifteenth century were Italy and Spain. Therefore, the birthplace of Copernicus lay almost at the confines of civilization, reminding us of that earlier period when Greece was the centre of culture, but when the great Greek thinkers were born in Asia Minor and in Italy.

As a young man, Copernicus made his way to Vienna to study medicine, and subsequently he journeyed into Italy and remained there many years, About the year 1500 he held the chair of mathematics in a college at Rome. Subsequently he returned to his native land and passed his remaining years there, dying at Domkerr, in Frauenburg, East Prussia, in the year 1543.

It would appear that Copernicus conceived the idea of the heliocentric system of the universe while he was a comparatively young man, since in the introduction to his great work, which he addressed to Pope Paul III., he states that he has pondered his system not merely nine years, in accordance with the maxim of Horace, but well into the fourth period of nine years. Throughout a considerable portion of this period the great work of Copernicus was in manuscript, but it was not published until the year of his death. The reasons for the delay are not very fully established. Copernicus undoubtedly taught his system throughout the later decades of his life. He himself tells us that he had even questioned whether it were not better for him to confine himself to such verbal teaching, following thus the example of Pythagoras. Just as his life was drawing to a close, he decided to pursue the opposite course, and the first copy of his work is said to have been placed in his hands as he lay on his deathbed.

The violent opposition which the new system met from ecclesiastical sources led subsequent commentators to suppose that Copernicus had delayed publication of his work through fear of the church authorities. There seems, however, to be no direct evidence for this opinion. It has been thought significant that Copernicus addressed his work to the pope. It is, of course, quite conceivable that the aged astronomer might wish by this means to demonstrate that he wrote in no spirit of hostility to the church. His address to the pope might have been considered as a desirable shield precisely because the author recognized that his work must needs meet with ecclesiastical criticism. Be that as it may, Copernicus was removed by death from the danger of attack, and it remained for his disciples of a later generation to run the gauntlet of criticism and suffer the charges of heresy.

The work of Copernicus, published thus in the year 1543 at Nuremberg, bears the title De Orbium Coelestium Revolutionibus.

It is not necessary to go into details as to the cosmological system which Copernicus advocated, since it is familiar to every one. In a word, he supposed the sun to be the centre of all the planetary motions, the earth taking its place among the other planets, the list of which, as known at that time, comprised Mercury, Venus, the Earth, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. The fixed stars were alleged to be stationary, and it was necessary to suppose that they are almost infinitely distant, inasmuch as they showed to the observers of that time no parallax; that is to say, they preserved the same apparent position when viewed from the opposite points of the earth’s orbit.

But let us allow Copernicus to speak for himself regarding his system, His exposition is full of interest. We quote first the introduction just referred to, in which appeal is made directly to the pope.

“I can well believe, most holy father, that certain people, when they hear of my attributing motion to the earth in these books of mine, will at once declare that such an opinion ought to be rejected. Now, my own theories do not please me so much as not to consider what others may judge of them. Accordingly, when I began to reflect upon what those persons who accept the stability of the earth, as confirmed by the opinion of many centuries, would say when I claimed that the earth moves, I hesitated for a long time as to whether I should publish that which I have written to demonstrate its motion, or whether it would not be better to follow the example of the Pythagoreans, who used to hand down the secrets of philosophy to their relatives and friends only in oral form. As I well considered all this, I was almost impelled to put the finished work wholly aside, through the scorn I had reason to anticipate on account of the newness and apparent contrariness to reason of my theory.

“My friends, however, dissuaded me from such a course and admonished me that I ought to publish my book, which had lain concealed in my possession not only nine years, but already into four times the ninth year. Not a few other distinguished and very learned men asked me to do the same thing, and told me that I ought not, on account of my anxiety, to delay any longer in consecrating my work to the general service of mathematicians.

“But your holiness will perhaps not so much wonder that I have dared to bring the results of my night labors to the light of day, after having taken so much care in elaborating them, but is waiting instead to hear how it entered my mind to imagine that the earth moved, contrary to the accepted opinion of mathematicians–nay, almost contrary to ordinary human understanding. Therefore I will not conceal from your holiness that what moved me to consider another way of reckoning the motions of the heavenly bodies was nothing else than the fact that the mathematicians do not agree with one another in their investigations. In the first place, they are so uncertain about the motions of the sun and moon that they cannot find out the length of a full year. In the second place, they apply neither the same laws of cause and effect, in determining the motions of the sun and moon and of the five planets, nor the same proofs. Some employ only concentric circles, others use eccentric and epicyclic ones, with which, however, they do not fully attain the desired end. They could not even discover nor compute the main thing–namely, the form of the universe and the symmetry of its parts. It was with them as if some should, from different places, take hands, feet, head, and other parts of the body, which, although very beautiful, were not drawn in their proper relations, and, without making them in any way correspond, should construct a monster instead of a human being.

“Accordingly, when I had long reflected on this uncertainty of mathematical tradition, I took the trouble to read again the books of all the philosophers I could get hold of, to see if some one of them had not once believed that there were other motions of the heavenly bodies. First I found in Cicero that Niceties had believed in the motion of the earth. Afterwards I found in Plutarch, likewise, that some others had held the same opinion. This induced me also to begin to consider the movability of the earth, and, although the theory appeared contrary to reason, I did so because I knew that others before me had been allowed to assume rotary movements at will, in order to explain the phenomena of these celestial bodies. I was of the opinion that I, too, might be permitted to see whether, by presupposing motion in the earth, more reliable conclusions than hitherto reached could not be discovered for the rotary motions of the spheres. And thus, acting on the hypothesis of the motion which, in the following book, I ascribe to the earth, and by long and continued observations, I have finally discovered that if the motion of the other planets be carried over to the relation of the earth and this is made the basis for the rotation of every star, not only will the phenomena of the planets be explained thereby, but also the laws and the size of the stars; all their spheres and the heavens themselves will appear so harmoniously connected that nothing could be changed in any part of them without confusion in the remaining parts and in the whole universe. I do not doubt that clever and learned men will agree with me if they are willing fully to comprehend and to consider the proofs which I advance in the book before us. In order, however, that both the learned and the unlearned may see that I fear no man’s judgment, I wanted to dedicate these, my night labors, to your holiness, rather than to any one else, because you, even in this remote corner of the earth where I live, are held to be the greatest in dignity of station and in love for all sciences and for mathematics, so that you, through your position and judgment, can easily suppress the bites of slanderers, although the proverb says that there is no remedy against the bite of calumny.”

In chapter X. of book I., “On the Order of the Spheres,” occurs a more detailed presentation of the system, as follows:

“That which Martianus Capella, and a few other Latins, very well knew, appears to me extremely noteworthy. He believed that Venus and Mercury revolve about the sun as their centre and that they cannot go farther away from it than the circles of their orbits permit, since they do not revolve about the earth like the other planets. According to this theory, then, Mercury’s orbit would be included within that of Venus, which is more than twice as great, and would find room enough within it for its revolution.

“If, acting upon this supposition, we connect Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars with the same centre, keeping in mind the greater extent of their orbits, which include the earth’s sphere besides those of Mercury and Venus, we cannot fail to see the explanation of the regular order of their motions. He is certain that Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars are always nearest the earth when they rise in the evening–that is, when they appear over against the sun, or the earth stands between them and the sun–but that they are farthest from the earth when they set in the evening–that is, when we have the sun between them and the earth. This proves sufficiently that their centre belongs to the sun and is the same about which the orbits of Venus and Mercury circle. Since, however, all have one centre, it is necessary for the space intervening between the orbits of Venus and Mars to include the earth with her accompanying moon and all that is beneath the moon; for the moon, which stands unquestionably nearest the earth, can in no way be separated from her, especially as there is sufficient room for the moon in the aforesaid space. Hence we do not hesitate to claim that the whole system, which includes the moon with the earth for its centre, makes the round of that great circle between the planets, in yearly motion about the sun, and revolves about the centre of the universe, in which the sun rests motionless, and that all which looks like motion in the sun is explained by the motion of the earth. The extent of the universe, however, is so great that, whereas the distance of the earth from the sun is considerable in comparison with the size of the other planetary orbits, it disappears when compared with the sphere of the fixed stars. I hold this to be more easily comprehensible than when the mind is confused by an almost endless number of circles, which is necessarily the case with those who keep the earth in the middle of the universe. Although this may appear incomprehensible and contrary to the opinion of many, I shall, if God wills, make it clearer than the sun, at least to those who are not ignorant of mathematics.

“The order of the spheres is as follows: The first and lightest of all the spheres is that of the fixed stars, which includes itself and all others, and hence is motionless as the place in the universe to which the motion and position of all other stars is referred.

“Then follows the outermost planet, Saturn, which completes its revolution around the sun in thirty years; next comes Jupiter with a twelve years’ revolution; then Mars, which completes its course in two years. The fourth one in order is the yearly revolution which includes the earth with the moon’s orbit as an epicycle. In the fifth place is Venus with a revolution of nine months. The sixth place is taken by Mercury, which completes its course in eighty days. In the middle of all stands the sun, and who could wish to place the lamp of this most beautiful temple in another or better place. Thus, in fact, the sun, seated upon the royal throne, controls the family of the stars which circle around him. We find in their order a harmonious connection which cannot be found elsewhere. Here the attentive observer can see why the waxing and waning of Jupiter seems greater than with Saturn and smaller than with Mars, and again greater with Venus than with Mercury. Also, why Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars are nearer to the earth when they rise in the evening than when they disappear in the rays of the sun. More prominently, however, is it seen in the case of Mars, which when it appears in the heavens at night, seems to equal Jupiter in size, but soon afterwards is found among the stars of second magnitude. All of this results from the same cause–namely, from the earth’s motion. The fact that nothing of this is to be seen in the case of the fixed stars is a proof of their immeasurable distance, which makes even the orbit of yearly motion or its counterpart invisible to us.”[1]

The fact that the stars show no parallax had been regarded as an important argument against the motion of the earth, and it was still so considered by the opponents of the system of Copernicus. It had, indeed, been necessary for Aristarchus to explain the fact as due to the extreme distance of the stars; a perfectly correct explanation, but one that implies distances that are altogether inconceivable. It remained for nineteenth-century astronomers to show, with the aid of instruments of greater precision, that certain of the stars have a parallax. But long before this demonstration had been brought forward, the system of Copernicus had been accepted as a part of common knowledge.

While Copernicus postulated a cosmical scheme that was correct as to its main features, he did not altogether break away from certain defects of the Ptolemaic hypothesis. Indeed, he seems to have retained as much of this as practicable, in deference to the prejudice of his time. Thus he records the planetary orbits as circular, and explains their eccentricities by resorting to the theory of epicycles, quite after the Ptolemaic method. But now, of course, a much more simple mechanism sufficed to explain the planetary motions, since the orbits were correctly referred to the central sun and not to the earth.

Needless to say, the revolutionary conception of Copernicus did not meet with immediate acceptance. A number of prominent astronomers, however, took it up almost at once, among these being Rhaeticus, who wrote a commentary on the evolutions; Erasmus Reinhold, the author of the Prutenic tables; Rothmann, astronomer to the Landgrave of Hesse, and Maestlin, the instructor of Kepler. The Prutenic tables, just referred to, so called because of their Prussian origin, were considered an improvement on the tables of Copernicus, and were highly esteemed by the astronomers of the time. The commentary of Rhaeticus gives us the interesting information that it was the observation of the orbit of Mars and of the very great difference between his apparent diameters at different times which first led Copernicus to conceive the heliocentric idea. Of Reinhold it is recorded that he considered the orbit of Mercury elliptical, and that he advocated a theory of the moon, according to which her epicycle revolved on an elliptical orbit, thus in a measure anticipating one of the great discoveries of Kepler to which we shall refer presently. The Landgrave of Hesse was a practical astronomer, who produced a catalogue of fixed stars which has been compared with that of Tycho Brahe. He was assisted by Rothmann and by Justus Byrgius. Maestlin, the preceptor of Kepler, is reputed to have been the first modern observer to give a correct explanation of the light seen on portions of the moon not directly illumined by the sun. He explained this as not due to any proper light of the moon itself, but as light reflected from the earth. Certain of the Greek philosophers, however, are said to have given the same explanation, and it is alleged also that Leonardo da Vinci anticipated Maestlin in this regard.[2]

While, various astronomers of some eminence thus gave support to the Copernican system, almost from the beginning, it unfortunately chanced that by far the most famous of the immediate successors of Copernicus declined to accept the theory of the earth’s motion. This was Tycho Brahe, one of the greatest observing astronomers of any age. Tycho Brahe was a Dane, born at Knudstrup in the year 1546. He died in 1601 at Prague, in Bohemia. During a considerable portion of his life he found a patron in Frederick, King of Denmark, who assisted him to build a splendid observatory on the Island of Huene. On the death of his patron Tycho moved to Germany, where, as good luck would have it, he came in contact with the youthful Kepler, and thus, no doubt, was instrumental in stimulating the ambitions of one who in later years was to be known as a far greater theorist than himself. As has been said, Tycho rejected the Copernican theory of the earth’s motion. It should be added, however, that he accepted that part of the Copernican theory which makes the sun the centre of all the planetary motions, the earth being excepted. He thus developed a system of his own, which was in some sort a compromise between the Ptolemaic and the Copernican systems. As Tycho conceived it, the sun revolves about the earth, carrying with it the planets-Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, which planets have the sun and not the earth as the centre of their orbits. This cosmical scheme, it should be added, may be made to explain the observed motions of the heavenly bodies, but it involves a much more complex mechanism than is postulated by the Copernican theory.

Various explanations have been offered of the conservatism which held the great Danish astronomer back from full acceptance of the relatively simple and, as we now know, correct Copernican doctrine. From our latter-day point of view, it seems so much more natural to accept than to reject the Copernican system, that we find it difficult to put ourselves in the place of a sixteenth-century observer. Yet if we recall that the traditional view, having warrant of acceptance by nearly all thinkers of every age, recorded the earth as a fixed, immovable body, we shall see that our surprise should be excited rather by the thinker who can break away from this view than by the one who still tends to cling to it.

Moreover, it is useless to attempt to disguise the fact that something more than a mere vague tradition was supposed to support the idea of the earth’s overshadowing importance in the cosmical scheme. The sixteenth-century mind was overmastered by the tenets of ecclesiasticism, and it was a dangerous heresy to doubt that the Hebrew writings, upon which ecclesiasticism based its claim, contained the last word regarding matters of science. But the writers of the Hebrew text had been under the influence of that Babylonian conception of the universe which accepted the earth as unqualifiedly central–which, indeed, had never so much as conceived a contradictory hypothesis; and so the Western world, which had come to accept these writings as actually supernatural in origin, lay under the spell of Oriental ideas of a pre-scientific era. In our own day, no one speaking with authority thinks of these Hebrew writings as having any scientific weight whatever. Their interest in this regard is purely antiquarian; hence from our changed point of view it seems scarcely credible that Tycho Brahe can have been in earnest when he quotes the Hebrew traditions as proof that the sun revolves about the earth. Yet we shall see that for almost three centuries after the time of Tycho, these same dreamings continued to be cited in opposition to those scientific advances which new observations made necessary; and this notwithstanding the fact that the Oriental phrasing is, for the most part, poetically ambiguous and susceptible of shifting interpretations, as the criticism of successive generations has amply testified.

As we have said, Tycho Brahe, great observer as he was, could not shake himself free from the Oriental incubus. He began his objections, then, to the Copernican system by quoting the adverse testimony of a Hebrew prophet who lived more than a thousand years B.C. All of this shows sufficiently that Tycho Brahe was not a great theorist. He was essentially an observer, but in this regard he won a secure place in the very first rank. Indeed, he was easily the greatest observing astronomer since Hipparchus, between whom and himself there were many points of resemblance. Hipparchus, it will be recalled, rejected the Aristarchian conception of the universe just as Tycho rejected the conception of Copernicus.

But if Tycho propounded no great generalizations, the list of specific advances due to him is a long one, and some of these were to prove important aids in the hands of later workers to the secure demonstration of the Copernican idea. One of his most important series of studies had to do with comets. Regarding these bodies there had been the greatest uncertainty in the minds of astronomers. The greatest variety of opinions regarding them prevailed; they were thought on the one hand to be divine messengers, and on the other to be merely igneous phenomena of the earth’s atmosphere. Tycho Brahe declared that a comet which he observed in the year 1577 had no parallax, proving its extreme distance. The observed course of the comet intersected the planetary orbits, which fact gave a quietus to the long-mooted question as to whether the Ptolemaic spheres were transparent solids or merely imaginary; since the comet was seen to intersect these alleged spheres, it was obvious that they could not be the solid substance that they were commonly imagined to be, and this fact in itself went far towards discrediting the Ptolemaic system. It should be recalled, however, that this supposition of tangible spheres for the various planetary and stellar orbits was a mediaeval interpretation of Ptolemy’s theory rather than an interpretation of Ptolemy himself, there being nothing to show that the Alexandrian astronomer regarded his cycles and epicycles as other than theoretical.

An interesting practical discovery made by Tycho was his method of determining the latitude of a place by means of two observations made at an interval of twelve hours. Hitherto it had been necessary to observe the sun’s angle on the equinoctial days, a period of six months being therefore required. Tycho measured the angle of elevation of some star situated near the pole, when on the meridian, and then, twelve hours later, measured the angle of elevation of the same star when it again came to the meridian at the opposite point of its apparent circle about the polestar. Half the sum of these angles gives the latitude of the place of observation.

As illustrating the accuracy of Tycho’s observations, it may be noted that he rediscovered a third inequality of the moon’s motion at its variation, he, in common with other European astronomers, being then quite unaware that this inequality had been observed by an Arabian astronomer. Tycho proved also that the angle of inclination of the moon’s orbit to the ecliptic is subject to slight variation.

The very brilliant new star which shone forth suddenly in the constellation of Cassiopeia in the year 1572, was made the object of special studies by Tycho, who proved that the star had no sensible parallax and consequently was far beyond the planetary regions. The appearance of a new star was a phenomenon not unknown to the ancients, since Pliny records that Hipparchus was led by such an appearance to make his catalogue of the fixed stars. But the phenomenon is sufficiently uncommon to attract unusual attention. A similar phenomenon occurred in the year 1604, when the new star–in this case appearing in the constellation of Serpentarius–was explained by Kepler as probably proceeding from a vast combustion. This explanation–in which Kepler is said to have followed. Tycho–is fully in accord with the most recent theories on the subject, as we shall see in due course. It is surprising to hear Tycho credited with so startling a theory, but, on the other hand, such an explanation is precisely what should be expected from the other astronomer named. For Johann Kepler, or, as he was originally named, Johann von Kappel, was one of the most speculative astronomers of any age. He was forever theorizing, but such was the peculiar quality of his mind that his theories never satisfied him for long unless he could put them to the test of observation. Thanks to this happy combination of qualities, Kepler became the discoverer of three famous laws of planetary motion which lie at the very foundation of modern astronomy, and which were to be largely instrumental in guiding Newton to his still greater generalization. These laws of planetary motion were vastly important as corroborating the Copernican theory of the universe, though their position in this regard was not immediately recognized by contemporary thinkers. Let us examine with some detail into their discovery, meantime catching a glimpse of the life history of the remarkable man whose name they bear.


Johann Kepler was born the 27th of December, 1571, in the little town of Weil, in Wurtemburg. He was a weak, sickly child, further enfeebled by a severe attack of small-pox. It would seem paradoxical to assert that the parents of such a genius were mismated, but their home was not a happy one, the mother being of a nervous temperament, which perhaps in some measure accounted for the genius of the child. The father led the life of a soldier, and finally perished in the campaign against the Turks. Young Kepler’s studies were directed with an eye to the ministry. After a preliminary training he attended the university at Tubingen, where he came under the influence of the celebrated Maestlin and became his life-long friend.

Curiously enough, it is recorded that at first Kepler had no taste for astronomy or for mathematics. But the doors of the ministry being presently barred to him, he turned with enthusiasm to the study of astronomy, being from the first an ardent advocate of the Copernican system. His teacher, Maestlin, accepted the same doctrine, though he was obliged, for theological reasons, to teach the Ptolemaic system, as also to oppose the Gregorian reform of the calendar.

The Gregorian calendar, it should be explained, is so called because it was instituted by Pope Gregory XIII., who put it into effect in the year 1582, up to which time the so-called Julian calendar, as introduced by Julius Caesar, had been everywhere accepted in Christendom. This Julian calendar, as we have seen, was a great improvement on preceding ones, but still lacked something of perfection inasmuch as its theoretical day differed appreciably from the actual day. In the course of fifteen hundred years, since the time of Caesar, this defect amounted to a discrepancy of about eleven days. Pope Gregory proposed to correct this by omitting ten days from the calendar, which was done in September, 1582. To prevent similar inaccuracies in the future, the Gregorian calendar provided that once in four centuries the additional day to make a leap-year should be omitted, the date selected for such omission being the last year of every fourth century. Thus the years 1500, 1900, and 2300, A.D., would not be leap-years. By this arrangement an approximate

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