Skip to Navigation Skip to Content Skip to Search Skip to Site Map

Tag Archives: history of science

Teaching experimental philosophy: the case of George Adams Jr

Peter Anstey writes…

Around 100 works were published in the eighteenth century that bore the term ‘Experimental Philosophy’ in their title. Of these more than 80 were works designed for the teaching of experimental philosophy. In my last post I examined one of the earliest of these course books, J. T. Desaguliers’ Lectures of Experimental Philosophy of 1719. In this post we turn to one of the last of the course books published in the century, namely George Adams Junior’s 5 volume Lectures on Natural and Experimental Philososphy, first published in 1794.

Before turning to the contents of this work, however, it is worth noting that 48 of the 100 works, that is nearly half of them, were published in the last 15 years of the century. So Adams’ volumes were very much part of a publishing trend and they can only be properly understood by a comparison with the spate of other publications around them.

Nevertheless, these volumes contain some interesting surprises. The first thing to note is that Adams takes a decidedly historical approach to his subject, describing the origins of, say, experiments on air pressure with Torricelli and Pascal and tracing them through Boyle and others. These historical surveys serve to highlight just how important developments in seventeenth-century experimental philosophy were to those writing toward the end of the following century.

The second thing to note is the surprisingly high profile of Francis Bacon and Robert Boyle. The many references to Boyle and the esteem in which Adams clearly held him is perhaps explained in part by the fact that Adams’ work has a theological agenda similar that of some of Boyle’s natural philosophical output. The subtitle to Adams’ book is ‘Describing, in a familiar and easy manner, the Principal Phenomena of Nature; and Shewing, that they all co-operate in Displaying the Goodness, Wisdom, and Power of God’. However, it’s a little over the top when Adams says of Boyle,

    He seems to have been a heavenly spirit in a human form descending from above, to survey the wonders of this lower frame … (vol. 1, p. 10)

This sort of praise is more often associated with Newton in the eighteenth century. Interestingly, Adams seems not to have acquiesced in the over-exuberant praise of Newton. In fact, his view of Newton is far more measured. He does regard Newton as the greatest practitioner of Bacon’s experimental philosophy

      Among those who have pursued the path pointed out in the

Novum Organum

    , Sir Isaac Newton holds the first rank (vol. 2, p. 133)

But when earlier warning against overdependence upon authority he criticizes those who have ‘an implicit faith in the opinions they have adopted’ (vol. 2, p. 104) providing the example of someone who had claimed ‘Newton … is henceforth to be considered as our only sure guide and instructor’.

Thirdly, and most interestingly, Adams includes a 40-page chapter on ‘On the method of reasoning in natural philosophy’ and here we find an enthusiastic endorsement of Bacon’s method of natural philosophy as developed in his Novum organum of 1620. It contains, among other things, a full exposition of the idols of the mind, though Adams shows no interest in Baconian natural history, alluding to it only once and then in passing (vol. 2, p. 136). It is interesting to note, in conclusion, his allusion to Bacon’s comments on the ‘empirical philosophers’. They are,

    those, who labour with great diligence and accuracy, in a few experiments; and then venture to deduce theories and build up systems, strangely wresting every thing else to these experiments. … the opinions produced by these are more deformed and monstrous than those of the sophistical kind.

There is no evidence of the post-Kantian rationalism–empiricism distinction here!


CFP: Early Modern Medicine and Natural Philosophy

Center for the Philosophy of Science, University of Pittsburgh
2-4 November 2012

The aim of the conference is to bring to the fore the medical context of the ‘Scientific Revolution’ and to explore the complex connections between medicine and natural philosophy in Renaissance and Early Modern Europe. Medicine and natural philosophy interacted on many levels, from the practical imperative to restore and maintain the health of human bodies to theoretical issues on the nature of living matter and the powers of the soul to methodological concerns about the appropriate way to gain knowledge of natural things. And issues of life, generation, ageing, medicine, and vital activity were important topics of investigation for canonical actors of the Scientific Revolution, from Boyle, Hooke and Locke to Descartes and Leibniz. Recent efforts to recover the medical content and contexts of their projects have already begun to reshape our understanding of these key natural philosophers. Putting medical interests in the foreground also reveals connections with a wide variety of less canonical but historically important scientists, physicians, and philosophers, such as Petrus Severinus, Fabricius ab Aquapendente, Lodovico Settala, William Harvey, Richard Lower, Thomas Willis, Louis de la Forge, and Georg Ernst Stahl. This interdisciplinary conference will bring together scholars of Renaissance and Early Modern science, medicine and philosophy to examine the projects of more and less canonical figures and trace perhaps unexpected interactions between medicine and other approaches to studying and understanding the natural world.

Submission of extended abstracts for individual paper presentations (limit 30 minutes) are invited. More information is available here.

Confirmed speakers include:
Domenico Bertoloni Meli (Indiana University)
Antonio Clericuzio (University of Cassino)
Dennis Des Chene (Washington University)
Patricia Easton (Claremont Graduate University)
Cynthia Klestinec (Miami University, Ohio)
Gideon Manning (Caltech)
Jole Shackelford (University of Minnesota)
Justin E. H. Smith (Concordia University, Montreal)

Hypotheses and Newton’s Epistemic Triad

Kirsten Walsh writes…

Over the weekend, I participated in a conference on ‘Newton and his Reception’, at Ghent University.  I presented a paper based on my idea that Newton is working with an ‘epistemic triad’.  I had an excellent audience in Ghent, and received some very helpful feedback, but I’d like to hear what you think…

To begin, what is Newton’s ‘epistemic triad’?

In his published work, Newton often makes statements about his purported method in order to justify his scientific claims.  In these methodological statements, he contrasts things that have strong epistemic credentials with things that lack those credentials.  Consider, for example, these passages from his early papers on optics:

    For what I shall tell concerning them is not an Hypothesis but most rigid consequence, not conjectured by barely inferring ’tis thus because not otherwise or because it satisfies all Phænomena … but evinced by ye mediation of experiments concluding directly & wthout any suspicion of doubt. (6 February 1672)
    I shall not mingle conjectures with certainties… (6 February 1672)
    To determine by experiments these & such like Queries wch involve the propounded Theory seems the most proper & direct way to a conclusion. (3 April 1673)

What these passages tell us is that Newton is making a distinction between theories, which are certain and experimentally confirmed, hypotheses, which are uncertain and speculative, and queries, which are not certain, but provide the proper means to establish the certainty of theories.  I call this three-way division Newton’s ‘epistemic triad’, and argue that this triad provides the framework for Newton’s methodology.

To support this argument, I defended the following three theses:

Endurance thesis.  There are some general features of Newton’s methodology that don’t change.  These are characterised by the framework of the epistemic triad.

Developmental thesis. There are some particular features of Newton’s methodology that change over time.  These can be characterised as a development of the epistemic triad.

Contextual thesis. There are some particular features of Newton’s methodology that vary with respect to context (namely, mechanics versus optics).  These can be characterised as an adaptation of the epistemic triad to particular contexts.

The developmental and contextual theses are not news to most Newton scholars.  It is commonly accepted that Newton’s methodology changed in important ways over the course of his life, and that there are methodological differences between Principia and Opticks.  The endurance thesis is more problematic, so I made a special effort to show that Newton’s use of hypotheses is more consistent than we think.  I argued that:

  1. In Principia, Newton appears to be working with the same implicit definition of ‘hypothesis’ that he works with in his early optical papers; and
  2. Hypotheses perform similar methodological roles in all of Newton’s natural philosophical work.

I need to do some more work to properly explicate this methodological role.  But, to state it very broadly, Newton temporarily assumes hypotheses, which act as ‘helping premises’ in his inferences from phenomena.  The fact that a statement may appear in Newton’s writing as a hypothesis, and then reappear later in a query, rule of reasoning, or phenomenon, has convinced many Newton scholars that Newton is inconsistent in his use of hypotheses. Against this conviction, I argue that Newton applies the label ‘hypothesis’ to things that perform a particular function, rather than to a particular claim.

CFP: Creative Experiments

From the Zeta Books website:

The Journal of Early Modern Studies is seeking contributions for its second issue (Spring 2013). It will be a special issue, devoted to the theme:

Creative experiments:
Heuristic and Exploratory Experimentation in Early Modern Science

Editor: Dana Jalobeanu

The past decade has seen a renewed interest in multiple aspects of early modern experimentation: in the cognitive, psychological and social aspects of experiments, in their heuristic and exploratory value and in the complex inter-relations between experience, observation and experiment. Meanwhile, comparatively little has been done towards a more detailed, contextual and specific study of what might be described, a bit anachronistically, as the methodology of early modern experimentation, i.e. the ways in which philosophers, naturalists, promoters of mixed mathematics and artisans put experiments together and reflected on the capacity of experiments to extend, refine and test hypotheses, on the limits of experimental activity and on the heuristic power of experimentation. So far, the sustained interest in the role played by experiments in early modern science has usually centered on ‘evidence’- related problems. This line of investigation favored examination of the experimental results but neglected the “methodology” that brought about the results in the first place. It has also neglected the more creative and exploratory roles that experiments could and did play in the works of sixteenth and seventeenth century explorers of nature.

This special issue of the Journal of Early Modern Studies aims to bring together articles devoted to the investigation of particular cases of early modern experiments or early modern discussions of experimental methodology. We aim to put together a selection of interesting and perhaps relevant case studies that would further what might prove to be an interesting line of research, namely the investigation of the heuristic, analogical and creative role of early modern experiments.

JEMS is an interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed journal of intellectual history, dedicated to the exploration of the interactions between philosophy, science and religion in Early Modern Europe. It is edited by the Research Centre “Foundations of Modern Thought”, University of Bucharest, and published and distributed by Zeta Books. For further information on JEMS, please visit

We are seeking for articles no longer than 10,000 words, in English or French, with an abstract and key-words in English. Please send your contribution by the 1st of October 2012 to

Explicating Newton’s Natural Philosophical Methodology: Part II

This is the second part of Steffen Ducheyne’s presentation of his new book, The main Business of Natural Philosophy:” Isaac Newton’s Natural-Philosophical Methodology. You can find the first part here.

Steffen Ducheyne writes …

In the Principia (1687), Newton developed a detailed picture of how one may deduce causes from phenomena (for the technical details I refer to Chapters 2 and 3). Newton’s expression ‘deductions from phenomena’ has oftentimes been considered as a rhetorical tool by which he sought to distance himself from his opponents. However, close scrutiny shows, I believe, that Newton’s ‘deductions from phenomena’ have profound methodological significance as well. I do not, however, endorse the view that Newton’s Principia-style methodology was therefore non-hypothetical. Rather, what makes it methodologically interesting is that it encompassed procedures to minimize speculation and inductive risk in the process of theory formation. What is distinctive of Newton’s Principia-style methodology is that he established bi-conditional dependencies between causes and their effects from the laws of motion. In other words, the causes which Newton would later infer in Book III were backed-up and constrained by the laws of motion. Given these dependencies, Newton was able to present his derivations of the centripetal forces acting in our solar system as deductions and, hence, as ‘deductions from phenomena’. I want to emphasize, however, that Newton’s proceeding from phenomena to theory, i.e. his presenting of certain inferences as deductions from phenomena, taken as such is not what makes his method essentially different from hypothetico-deductivism. Rather, proceeding from phenomena to theory is the by-product of what genuinely makes Newton’s method distinctive from hypothetico-deductivism: the establishment of systematic dependencies backed-up by the laws of motion. These systematic dependencies, in other words, mediate between experimental or astronomical results and the very causes which account for these phenomena.

Portrait of Isaac Newton (1702)

Once he had finished the Principia, Newton returned to his optical studies, which would eventually lead to the publication of the Opticks in 1704. Could he now methodize optics according to the highly sophisticated standards which he had developed in the Principia? In my view, the answer is negative. For instance, I have argued that Newton’s argument for the heterogeneity of light rests on an argument of uniformity that cannot be licensed by Newton’s second rule of philosophizing. I have also paid considerable attention to the problem of transduction which Newton encountered in his optical studies. In mechanics, the affected entities, i.e. the explananda – bodies moving along specific trajectories, and their constituent elements, namely, the particles constituting these very bodies – all have a theoretically salient property in common, namely, mass. Because gravity is proportional to mass and because the latter is additive, gravity is likewise additive. This allowed Newton to show that a body’s overall force can be decomposed into the individual forces of each of the bodies constituting that body and vice versa. In optics, by contrast, we do not know – at least not without speculating on the matter – the constituting elements of the explananda. In the Opticks Newton could not establish ‘deductions from phenomena’ because, in contrast to the physico-mechanical theory of the Principia, a mixed science describes a given phenomenon mathematically without an accompanying explanatory story. In other words, in the Opticks the inference of causes could not be constrained by a set of laws which carry information about the proximate causes involved.

By way of outro and also as a teaser, I would like to conclude by devoting some words to the provisionalism that characterized Newton’s later methodological thought. Newton’s provisionalism pervades the third and especially the fourth regula philosophandi, which were added in the second (1713) and third (1726) edition of the Principia, respectively. The provisionalism which Newton envisioned did not apply to the ‘deductions from phenomena’, but rather to propositions ‘rendered general by induction’ – at least evidence from Newton’s manuscripts leads me to believe so. Based on a careful study of Newton’s manuscripts, I have also succeeded in clarifying what Newton understood by qualities which cannot be “intended and remitted” and, on the basis of this, I have concluded that the Cohen-Whitman translation of “intendi et remitti” as “increased and diminished” is incorrect. I could say much more about my book, but I hope that this will suffice to get you interested in reading it.

Explicating Newton’s Natural Philosophical Methodology: Part I

Steffen Ducheyne writes …

The research team at Otago has kindly invited me to discuss some of the central ideas of my recent monograph “The main Business of Natural Philosophy”: Isaac Newton’s Natural-Philosophical Methodology. My aim in this and next week’s guest post is not to give a complete overview of my book, but rather to bring some salient features of Newton’s methodology to the fore insofar as they are relevant for the speculative-experimental distinction.

Newton sought to separate hypotheses from demonstrations from within natural or experimental philosophy. This, in my view, adds an interesting dimension to the speculative-experimental distinction, for it shows how the distinction was transformed and introduced in the realm of natural philosophy. Newton’s preoccupation with methodological rigour and his distaste of hypotheses led him to explicate the conditions under which our conclusions about the physical world are to be considered as truthful. In this process, he would develop a highly sophisticated methodological position the kind of which had never been seen before.

Portrait of Isaac Newton (1689)

Before turning to a discussion of Newton’s methodology proper, however, I would like to say something on how I have approached Newton’s methodology. Oftentimes, Newton’s methodology has been approached as if it was a stable given that remained fixed throughout his natural-philosophical career. In my book I have argued that Newton’s methodological views developed alongside with his natural-philosophical research. In Chapter 5, moreover, I distinguish between four distinct phases in the development of Newton’s methodological thought. Furthermore, although Newton clearly favoured his Principia-style methodology, which sets out to physico-mathematically ‘deduce’ causes from their effects, and considered it as the one to be followed ideally, Newton also relied on different methodologies. For instance, in the demonstrative parts of the Opticks he made use of a mixed mathematics treatment and in its speculative parts he proposed hypotheses to be investigated further. In my monograph I have called attention to important diachronic and synchronic differences in Newton’s methodological thought.

Newton’s first optical paper (1671/2) was not only a scientific debut, he also introduced a new methodological ideal on how knowledge about the empirical world is to be established. That ideal consisted in deducing causes from phenomena with demonstrative certainty. In the unedited version of his first optical paper, Newton stated the following on his theory of the heterogeneity of white light: “For what I shall tell concerning them [i.e. colours] is not a Hypothesis but most rigid consequence, not conjectured by barely inferring ’tis thus because not otherwise or because it satisfies all phænomena […] but evinced by ye mediation of experiments concluding directly & without any suspicion of doubt.” In the same period, he criticized the use of hypotheses in natural philosophy. At this point, important features of Newton’s methodological views were in place: his rejection of hypotheses, his ideal of deducing causes from phenomena, his conviction that by injecting mathematics into natural philosophy the latter could partake in the certainty of the former, his endeavour to draw conclusions from experiments, and his desire to treat of light ‘abstractly’, i.e. without making statements on the nature of light. Yet, as I argue in detail in Chapter 4, Newton’s methodological position was at that point still lacking elaboration and justification. That Newton did not provide much detail on how the heterogeneity of white light is derived from the experimentum crucis illustrates the lack of elaboration that characterized Newton’s early methodological views. In next week’s post I will summarize just how Newton’s methodological views developed from the publication of the first edition of the Principia in 1687.

Physics: from experimental philosophy to experimental science

Alberto Vanzo writes…

I have been wondering recently when German thinkers ceased considering physics as a part of philosophy and whether this may be related to the demise of experimental philosophy in late eighteenth-century Germany. I think that this may have well been the case. My hypothesis is that experimental philosophy declined as the result of the influence of Kantian and post-Kantian idealism and that the distinction between physics and philosophy gained foot in the 1830s and the 1840s as a reaction to post-Kantian idealism. In this post, I would like to expand on this suggestion and ask you for comments and pointers for further research.

As is well-known, physics was generally regarded as a part of philosophy in the early modern age. This is true for most early modern German writers, including several German experimental philosophers who, in the 1770s and 1780s, attempted to develop their systems on the basis of experiments and observations and eschewed hypotheses and a priori speculations. They held that the whole of philosophy relied on the same method as physics.

In the last two decades of the eighteenth century, Kantian and post-Kantian philosophies came to dominate the philosophical scene and eclipsed the German tradition of experimental philosophy. Kant vindicated a metaphysics based on a priori reasonings rather than observations and experiments. Kant held that we can discover some features of the natural world a priori. He distinguished this a priori, metaphysical study of nature from empirical, experimental physics, which he regarded as a part of philosophy too. However, at the end of the Critique of Pure Reason he introduced a narrow notion of philosophy that includes only a priori disciplines and excludes empirical physics from the domain of philosophy:

    Thus the metaphysics of nature as well as morals, but above all the preparatory (propaedeutic) critique of reason that dares to fly with its own wings, alone constitute that which we can call philosophy in a genuine sense. (A850/B878)

Early-day Kantians agreed with Kant that experimental physics was part of philosophy in the broad sense, but not of philosophy in the narrow sense. However, many of their pronouncements imply that physics (tacitly identified with experimental physics) is not part of philosophy (tacitly identified with Kant’s narrow notion of philosophy). For instance, the Kantian Johann Gottlieb Buhle wrote that, when seventeenth-century writers used the expression “Cartesian philosophy”, they were often thinking “about his physics and cosmogony rather than about his philosophy in the proper sense”. With statements like this, Kant and his disciplines promoted a division of labour between the a priori inquiries of philosophers and the a posteriori research of physicists.

Did German authors start distinguishing between physics and philosophy once the Neo-Kantians started spreading Kant’s outlook in the 1860s, as Richard Rorty claimed? I believe that several German authors started distinguishing physics from philosophy much earlier, in the 1830s or 1840s. One of the most important events in the German intellectual scene between Kant’s death in 1804 and the 1840s was the rise and decline of post-Kantian idealism. Post-Kantian idealists like Schelling and Hegel pursued an approach to the study of nature that was heavily influenced by their own philosophical speculations (Schelling, for instance, founded a Journal for Speculative Physics). I believe that the tendency to distinguish physics from philosophy spread as a reaction to the attitude of post-Kantian idealists towards physics. The entry “Physik” published in the Brockhaus Conversations-Lexicon in 1833, two years after Hegel’s death, states:

    philosophy, at least in Germany, has again attempted to gain influence on physics. However, after all attempts to found physics from this side [i.e. on philosophy] proved unfruitful, only very few physicists, and actually not the most thorough ones, still believe that they could replace the secure footing that mathematics made possible to give [to physics] with the still very shaky concepts of philosophy. Hence, even if the so-called dynamical conception of physics that is related to this philosophical point of view still survives in some speculations, nevertheless we must admit that now only the mechanical point of view is influential and valid in real-life physics [im Leben der Physik].

Although suggestive, this single quote is hardly sufficient to prove my hypothesis that German authors started distinguishing physics from philosophy as a reaction to the post-Kantian idealistic tendencies that had in turn eclipsed experimental philosophy. Do you think that this view is persuasive? Also, when did physics stop being regarded as a part of philosophy in Great Britain and France? I would be grateful for any comments and suggestions.

Hypotheses and Newton’s Rings

Kirsten Walsh writes…

In Ian Lawson’s recent post, he mentioned Hooke’s work on colours in thin films.  In this post, I’ll look at how Newton used his hypotheses on light to build on Hooke’s work in some interesting and important ways.

In his optical work of the early 1670s, while Newton prefers theories to hypotheses, he thinks that hypotheses are acceptable, even useful, for two purposes:

  1. To ‘illustrate’ (i.e. provide an intuitively plausible explanation of) the theory; and
  2. To ‘suggest’ experiments.

However, he insists that hypotheses should always be removed from the final version of the theory.  Recall Newton’s claim from his 1672 paper: “I shall not mingle conjectures with certainties”.

In December 1675, Newton wrote his paper, “An hypothesis explaining the Properties of Light”.  Here, he published his hypotheses on the nature of light for the first time.  To summarise them briefly:

  1. There is an ‘aethereal medium’;
  2. Aether vibrates, carrying sounds, smells and light;
  3. Aether penetrates and passes through the pores of solid substances;
  4. Light is neither the aether itself, nor the vibrations, but a substance that is propagated from ‘lucid’ bodies and travels through the aether;
  5. Light warms the aether and the aether refracts the light; and
  6. The rays (or bodies) of which light consists differ from one another physically.

In this paper, Newton claims that he is only discussing these hypotheses for the purposes of ‘illuminating’ his theory.  Moreover, he does not assert that these hypotheses are true, and emphatically does not use them to support his theory.  For example, when he discusses hypothesis (4), Newton is careful not to push too forcefully for any particular account of light.  He says one might suppose light to be “an aggregate of various peripatetic qualities”, or “unimaginably small and swift” corpuscles of various sizes, or “any other corporeal emanation or impulse or motion of any other medium diffused through the body of the aether”:

    Onely whatever Light be, I would suppose, it consists of Successive rayes differing from one another in contingent circumstances, as bignes, forme or vigour…  And further I would suppose it divers from the vibrations of the aether.

In this paper, there is a notable emphasis on experiment.  For example, when Newton discusses hypothesis (1), he gives an account of a new electrical experiment which seems to support his claim.  And when he discusses hypothesis (3), he discusses the implications for Boyle’s tadpole experiments.  But the most important experiments in this paper are his investigations on the colours that appear between two glass surfaces.

Alan Shapiro notes that Newton began these investigations while he was reading Hooke’s Micrographia.  But his experiments and mathematical descriptions quickly developed into something well beyond the scope of Hooke’s investigations.  Hooke described the colours that appear when two thin sheets of glass are placed one on top of the other.  When he made the thin film of air between the two sheets thicker or thinner by pressing the two sheets together with greater or lesser force, the colours changed.  He observed that different colours appeared at different thicknesses, but he was unable to quantify this observation as he was unable to measure accurately the thickness of the film at any given point.  Newton had the idea of placing a convex lens on top of a flat sheet of glass.  This enabled him to easily calculate the thickness of the film of air, and the colours appeared as a set of concentric coloured circles centred at the point of contact between the two surfaces.  These concentric circles are now known as ‘Newton’s Rings’.

Opticks, Book 2, Figure 3






Next Newton considered his hypotheses.  According to hypothesis (2) the vibrations of the aether vary in size, according to hypothesis (3) aether passes through the pores of solid substances, and according to hypothesis (6) rays of different colours will cause aethereal vibrations of different sizes.  If these hypotheses were correct, he argued, then light of a particular colour would be reflected either when the length of the vibration, or some multiple of the length of the vibration, matched the thickness of the film, and transmitted otherwise.  So he predicted that:

    if the Glasses in this posture be looked upon, there ought to appear at A [the centre], the contact of the Glasses, a black spott, & about that many concentric circles of light & darknesse, the squares of whose semidiameters are to sense in arithmetical progression.

Newton’s “Hypothesis” paper provides a good example of his method of hypotheses.  He remains carefully detached from his own hypothesis, using it only to ‘illustrate’ his theory and to suggest further experiments.  Newton was also careful to keep his hypotheses well separate from his theory; the paper ends with a series of ‘Observations’ that contain no reference to his hypotheses at all!

The Giant’s Shoulders Blog Carnival #41

Welcome to the 41st edition of The Giant’s Shoulders blog carnival, a monthly roundup of the best blog posts on the history of science. We had a lot of great submissions this month – organized below in a few handy categories below for your reading pleasure.

Tales from the (science) crypt

Quite a few submissions for this edition of the carnival dealt with topics from the weird/occult with a scientific take on it. Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries tells us about the first anecdotes of vampires and how “they tell an important story about how people understood natural events.” Eric also gives us a post (first published at archy) about Stalin and his alleged plan to create an army of ape-warriors. The post focuses on the ethics of such type of scientific experiments.

The Witchfinder General, from a 1848 history of the Royal SocietY

We also received two submissions on curious topics found in the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions. Emma Davidson writes in the blog of the Royal Society’s History of Science Centre about “spooky subjects” in the Philosophical Transactions. In the traditional way of the members of the Royal Society, Davidson gives us samples of their approaches to witchcraft and ghostly themes. The other post in this area comes from the BBC News Magazine and it shows curious entries in the Royal Society’s archive, among them canine blood transfusion and a 1665 article about “the view from the moon.” Fascinating!

Finally, over at the blog of the Philadelphia Area Center for History of Science Darin Hayton looks at a controversy regarding the number of witches that were executed.

Historical figures

We received a number of great posts about interesting historical figures. At Providentia, Romeo Vitelli puzzles over the suicide of Ludwig Boltzmann in 1906: a man who had so much to live for! Tim Jones at Zoonomia tells us a few things he gleaned from Sir David Attenborough’s Darwin Lecture 2011 about Alfred Russel Wallace (co-discoverer of natural selection). He describes how Darwin and Wallace “reached a gentlemanly solution with no ill feelings all round”. Stephen Curry at Reciprocal Space tells us about Benjamin Thomson (a.k.a. Count von Rumford), who led the revolution against Lavoisier’s caloric theory of heat. He describes Rumford as “not a man wracked by self-doubt”, who had the audacity to draw a very flattering analogy between himself and Newton! Michael Ryan at Paleoblog tells us about Giovanni Arduino, the father of Italian geology, who gave a clear paleontological interpretation of the age sequence of the fossil record. Over at the Royal Society Blog, Emily Roberts tells us about the 16th-Century forebears of Boyle, Wren and Newton: John Rastell, Thomas Digges, John Dee, and William Gilbert. Finally, at Art History Today, David Packwood offers us an interesting portrait of Leonardo da Vinci as artist and natural philosopher.

Astronomy and space travel, past and present

Pluto looks at Pluto (from the Vintage Space blog)

Over at the Provientia blog, Romeo Vitelli gives us a fascinating account of John Wilkins’ early plans (as early as in 1638!) for a spaceship designed to take us to the Moon: “a flying machine, designed like a sailing ship but with clockwork gears and a set of wings. The wings would be covered with swan or goose feathers and would be powered by an internal combustion engine using gunpowder.”

At Vintage Space, Asteitel tells us the story of the rise and fall of Pluto: how it was discovered, how its anomalies were identified, until the International Astronomical Union established that it is not a planet in 2006 – unless you are in Illinois, where Pluto is a planet by law.


Syphilis was known as the morbus gallicus, but at Powered by Osteons, Kristina Killgrove tells us about newly discovered evidence for its presence in Roman Spain as early as the second or third century AD. “So did the Romans have syphilis? The jury’s still out, but I’m guessing there will be enough evidence soon for someone to add ‘insanity resulting from neurosyphilis’ to the list of crazy theories for why the Roman Empire fell.”

Moving to modern times, Jai Virdi explains how the aurist John Harrison Curtis used an instrument – the cephaloscope, on which he wrote a treatise in 1842 – to affirm his authority, as a symbol of skills and judgement. Speaking of authority, the Quack Doctor features an entertaining excerpt from a satire of itinerary eighteenth-century medical salesmen:

    Gentlemen, Because I present myself among you, I would not have you to think, I am any Upstart Glister-pipe Bum-peeping Apothecary; no, Gentlemen, I am no such person: I am a regular Physician, and have travelled most Kingdoms in the World, purely to do my Country good.
1902 eruption of Santa Maria

Eruption of Santa Maria (from Magma cum laude)


On the topic of geology, as well as the post on Giovanni Arduino, we received one from Jessica Ball at Magma cum Laude, where she discusses the 1902 eruption of Santa Maria. She looks at a particularly descriptive account of the eruption, explaining it in modern scientific terms. And David Bressan, over at History of Geology, tells us about the development of Ichnology (‘the examination of traces’), and the early forebears of this field – Leonardo da Vinci and Ulisse Aldrovandi – who drew some dangerous conclusions!


We were pleased to find some blog posts about or inspired by current exhibitions. Jacy Young has an entry on a very interesting film archive on the History of the Human Sciences. Kris Coronado gives us an account of an impressive collection of books (and a meteorite!) displayed at Johns Hopkins, first editions of both of Newton’s most famous works among the books exhibited. Katy Barrett reminds us in her post how those of us involved in research projects tend to take our particular questions wherever we go, when she tells us how an exhibition at the British Museum got her thinking about longitude. Last but not least, Laura Massey gives us a very interesting post on the advances of cryptography brought about by the Shakespeare authorship issue, theme of an upcoming movie called Anonymous.

That’s all for this edition of the Carnival. Thanks to all the bloggers for providing so much interesting reading material and to you, reader, for stopping by. The next edition of the Carnival is still looking for a home. If you would like to volunteer as a host, get in touch with Thony C or with the Dr SkySkull. Nominations as usual by the 15th December either directly to the host or on the Carnival website.

Newton’s Method in Three Minutes

Kirsten Walsh writes…

Last week I competed in the Otago University Three-Minute Thesis Competition.  I had to explain my PhD thesis in no longer than three minutes.  It was challenging indeed, in such a short length of time, to describe my research, communicate its significance and impart my enthusiasm for it – while pitching it at the level of an intelligent non-expert. Fortunately, I had great material to work with. There are so many interesting stories about Newton! Unfortunately, it’s often difficult to figure out which stories are true.

I opted to begin with the ‘approximately true’ story of Newton’s anni mirabilis, or miraculous years.  The general thrust of the story is true, even if some of the particulars are false: the plague years mark a significant turning point in Newton’s scientific work.  As Whiteside pointed out over forty years ago, we may

    “salute this first creative outburst – whether or not contained in one single marvelous year – of a man who twenty years afterwards was to construct a scientific Weltanschauung which is, in its essentials, still ours.”

So, with apologies to those of you with ‘historically sensitive’ ears, here is my script for the three-minute thesis competition:


It’s 1665.  Cambridge has been struck by Plague, and Newton has been sent home from University.  Summer is stretching out before him.  Nice!  What will he do on his extended summer holiday?  Well, he did what I imagine most Scarifies* do on their summer holidays: he invented calculus, discovered the composition of light, and (after watching an apple fall from a tree) conceived the laws of universal gravitation…  Okay, so perhaps Newton wasn’t quite your typical undergraduate student.  The story about the apple is controversial, but everyone agrees about the discoveries.  Scholars have called those years the ‘years of miracles’.

Why were they ‘miraculous’?  Well, these were revolutionary discoveries – and there were so many of them.  They provided the basic material for Newton’s Principia, and his Opticks. Enough material for a lifetime of publications!  And real publications.  Not just those ‘puff pieces’ that fill our journals nowadays.  All in just 2 years!

Furthermore, these discoveries seemed to come out of nowhere.  Newton was able to invent, discover and conceive things no one else could, because seemingly he had invented an entirely new scientific method.  He had come up with a whole new way of mathematising physics, and claimed to have achieved mathematical certainty!  Philosophers and scientists tried to emulate his method.  But no one was as successful as Newton.  Whatever Newton was doing, he was doing it right.  But what was he doing?

This is the central question of my PhD, and it’s a question that dominates discussions of scientific method even now, 300 years later.  But scholars still barely understand what Newton’s method was.  Did Newton really think his scientific theories were as certain as mathematical proofs?  Why did he think his theory of gravity was true, when he couldn’t even say for certain what gravity is?  And, at the centre of it all, the question that’s been keeping me up at nights (as it has kept up generations of Newton-scholars before me): what did Newton mean when he wrote that enigmatic sentence at the end of Principia: ‘Hypotheses non fingo’; ‘I do not feign hypotheses’?

I do not feign hypotheses.  What an odd thing to say.  What does it even mean?  ‘I haven’t invented these hypotheses’?  ‘I didn’t prove them’?  This sentence lies at the heart of my thesis.  Unlike other Newton scholars, I think it describes a crucial aspect of Newton’s method.  What it tells us is that Newton made a distinction.  On the one hand, theories: mathematical, certain, experimentally confirmed.  On the other hand, hypotheses: non-mathematical, uncertain, non-experimental, and speculative.  This distinction is a crucial feature of Newton’s spectacularly successful scientific method.  And I think it’s this distinction that explains Newton’s years of miracles.


The idea of anni mirabiles seems closely-related to the notion of a scientific revolution, which has been much discussed since Kuhn published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962.  Philosophers of science disagree philosophically over the importance of revolutions to science, and historically over the occurrence of any genuine scientific revolutions.  However, it is interesting to note that historians have recognised several anni mirabiles in the history of science.  For example, 1543, the year that Vesalius published De Humani Corporis Fabrica and Copernicus published De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium.  And 1905, the year that Einstein published his three ground-breaking papers in the Annalen der Physik.  What role have these anni mirabiles played in the history of science?  What do they tell us about scientific progress?  Norwood R Hanson once said:

    “It is possible both to be driven by intuition and at the same time to reason carefully.  Most scientific discoveries, indeed, result from just such an intertwining of headwork and guesswork.”

What do you think?


*Otago Undergraduate Students