Marie Curie

Marie Curie

Marie Curie was born in Warsaw on November 7, 1867, the daughter of a secondary-school teacher. She received a general education in local schools and some scientific training from her father. She became involved in a students’ revolutionary organization and found it prudent to leave Warsaw, then in the part of Poland dominated by Russia, for Cracow, which at that time was under Austrian rule. In 1891, she went to Paris to continue her studies at the Sorbonne where she obtained Licenciateships in Physics and the Mathematical Sciences. She met Pierre Curie, Professor in the School of Physics in 1894 and in the following year they were married. She succeeded her husband as Head of the Physics Laboratory at the Sorbonne, gained her Doctor of Science degree in 1903, and following the tragic death of Pierre Curie in 1906, she took his place as Professor of General Physics in the Faculty of Sciences, the first time a woman had held this position. She was also appointed Director of the Curie Laboratory in the Radium Institute of the University of Paris, founded in 1914.

Her early researches, together with her husband, were often performed under difficult conditions, laboratory arrangements were poor and both had to undertake much teaching to earn a livelihood. The discovery of radioactivity by Henri Becquerel in 1896 inspired the Curies in their brilliant researches and analyses which led to the isolation of polonium, named after the country of Marie’s birth, and radium. Mme. Curie developed methods for the separation of radium from radioactive residues in sufficient quantities to allow for its characterization and the careful study of its properties, therapeutic properties in particular.

Mme. Curie throughout her life actively promoted the use of radium to alleviate suffering and during World War I, assisted by her daughter, Irene, she personally devoted herself to this remedial work. She retained her enthusiasm for science throughout her life and did much to establish a radioactivity laboratory in her native city – in 1929 President Hoover of the United States presented her with a gift of $ 50,000, donated by American friends of science, to purchase radium for use in the laboratory in Warsaw.

Mme. Curie, quiet, dignified and unassuming, was held in high esteem and admiration by scientists throughout the world. She was a member of the Conseil du Physique Solvay from 1911 until her death and since 1922 she had been a member of the Committee of Intellectual Co-operation of the League of Nations. Her work is recorded in numerous papers in scientific journals and she is the author of Recherches sur les Substances Radioactives (1904), L’Isotopie et les Éléments Isotopes and the classic Traité’ de Radioactivité (1910).

The importance of Mme. Curie’s work is reflected in the numerous awards bestowed on her. She received many honorary science, medicine and law degrees and honorary memberships of learned societies throughout the world. Together with her husband, she was awarded half of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903, for their study into the spontaneous radiation discovered by Becquerel, who was awarded the other half of the Prize. In 1911 she received a second Nobel Prize, this time in Chemistry, in recognition of her work in radioactivity. She also received, jointly with her husband, the Davy Medal of the Royal Society in 1903 and, in 1921, President Harding of the United States, on behalf of the women of America, presented her with one gram of radium in recognition of her service to science. Curie died in Savoy, France, after a short illness, on July 4, 1934.



Ptolemy (aka Claudius Ptolemaeus, Ptolomaeus, Klaudios Ptolemaios, Ptolemeus) lived in Alexandria, Egypt and has an important role in the history of astronomy and geography. We know very little of Ptolemy’s life, including his birth and death dates. Various sources report different years, however, the first observation made by him which we can date exactly was on 26 March 127 while the last was on 2 February 141. Some experts believe his life spanned the years 87 – 150. During his lifetime, he did much to advance the sciences of astronomy and geography.

We get a few clues about him from his name, Claudius Ptolemy, which is a mixture of the Greek Egyptian ‘Ptolemy’ and the Roman ‘Claudius’. This seems to indicate that he was descended from a Greek family living in Egypt and that he was also a citizen of Rome. This could only have happened as a result of a Roman emperor rewarding one of his ancestors with this favor.

Around 1360, Theodore Meliteniotes claimed that Ptolemy was born in Hermiou (Northern Egypt. Alexandria is slightly farther south.) Due to the fact that Meliteniotes lived more than a thousand years after Ptolemy, and there is no corroboration, there is a lot of skepticism. In fact no evidence exists that he ever lived anywhere other than Alexandria.

Ptolemy was an astronomer, mathematician and geographer. He classified the Greek geocentric view of the universe, and calculated the apparent motions of the planets, as they were known in his time by synthesizing and extending Hipparchus’s system of epicycles and eccentric circles to explain his geocentric theory of the solar system. He used at least 80 epicycles to explain the motions of the Sun, the Moon, and the five planets known in his time.

This system came to be called the Ptolemaic System and was the center of astronomical beliefs for nearly a millennium and a half. It predicted the positions of the planets accurately enough for naked-eye observations.

Ptolemy described his system in his book, Almagest (Also known as Mathematical Syntaxis). It was a thirteen book mathematical explanation of astronomy, containing a wide variety of information. He also included a star catalog that contained 48 constellations, all with the same names still in use today.

The Ptolemaic System was the accepted wisdom until the Polish scholar Copernicus proposed a heliocentric view in 1543. In fairness, Ptolemy’s system is actually more accurate than Copernicus’s. The heliocentric calculations for the movement of planets does not improve on Ptolemy’s until Kepler’s Laws were added. Some people also doubt that Ptolemy truly believed his own system, rather he merely used it as a method of calculating positions.

Not just an astronomer, Ptolemy was very important in the history of geography and cartography. He was well aware that the Earth is a sphere. His is the first known projection of the sphere onto a plane. His work, “Geography” remained the principal work on the subject until the time of Columbus. It was amazingly accurate for the time, but had Asia extending much too far east. This may have been a deciding factor in Columbus’s decision to sail west for the Indies.

Nicolaus Copernicus

Nicolaus Copernicus

Nicolaus Copernicus is the Latin version of the famous astronomer’s name which he chose later in his life. The original form of his name was Mikolaj Kopernik or Nicolaus Koppernigk but we shall use Copernicus throughout this article. His father, also called Nicolaus Koppernigk, had lived in Kraków before moving to Torun where he set up a business trading in copper. He was also interested in local politics and became a civic leader in Torun and a magistrate. Nicolaus Koppernigk married Barbara Watzenrode, who came from a well off family from Torun, in about 1463. They moved into a house in St Anne’s Street in Torun, but they also had a summer residence with vineyards out of town. Nicolaus and Barbara Koppernigk had four children, two sons and two daughters, of whom Nicolaus Copernicus was the youngest. When young Nicolaus was ten years old his father died. His uncle Lucas Watzenrode, who was a canon at Frauenburg Cathedral, became guardian to Nicolaus and Barbara Koppernigk’s four children.

Nicolaus and his brother Andreas remained in Torun, continuing their elementary education there. In 1488 Nicolaus was sent by his uncle to the cathedral school of Wloclawek where he received a good standard humanist education. After three years of study at Wloclawek he entered the University of Kraków (situated in what was then the capital of Poland). By this time Lucas Watzenrode was Bishop of Ermland and he envisaged a church career for both of his nephews. Andreas, Nicolaus’s brother, entered the University of Kraków at the same time, and both their names appear on the matriculation records of 1491-92.

University education at Kraków was, Copernicus later wrote, a vital factor in everything that he went on to achieve. There he studied Latin, mathematics, astronomy, geography and philosophy. He learnt his astronomy from Tractatus de Sphaera by Johannes de Sacrobosco written in 1220. One should not think, however, that the astronomy courses which Copernicus studied were scientific courses in the modern sense. Rather they were mathematics courses which introduced Aristotle and Ptolemy’s view of the universe so that students could understand the calendar, calculate the dates of holy days, and also have skills that would enable those who would follow a more practical profession to navigate at sea. Also taught as a major part of astronomy was what today we would call astrology, teaching students to calculate horoscopes of people from the exact time of their birth.

While a student in Kraków, Copernicus purchased a copy of the Latin translation of Euclid’s Elements published in Venice in 1482, a copy of the second edition of the Alfonsine Tables (which gives planetary theory and eclipses) printed in Venice in 1492, and Regiomontanus’s Tables of Directions (a work on spherical astronomy) published in Augsburg in 1490. Remarkably Copernicus’s copies of these works, signed by him, are still preserved.

It was while he was a student at Kraków that Copernicus began to use this Latin version of his name rather than Kopernik or Koppernigk. He returned to Torun after four years of study at Kraków but, as was common at the time, did not formally graduate with a degree. His uncle Lucas Watzenrode was still determined that Copernicus should have a career in the Church and indeed this was a profession which would allow security for someone wanting to pursue leaning. So that he might have the necessary qualifications Copernicus decided to go to the University of Bologna to take a degree in canon law. In the autumn of 1496 he travelled to Italy, entering the University of Bologna on 19 October 1496, to start three years of study. As a native German speaker he joined the “German Nation of Bologna University”. Each student contributed to the “German Nation” an amount they could afford and the small contribution that Copernicus made indicates his poor financial position at that time.

While he was there his uncle put his name forward for the position of canon at Frauenburg Cathedral. On 20 October 1497, while in Bologna, Copernicus received official notification of his appointment as a canon and of the comfortable income he would receive without having to return to carry out any duties. At Bologna University Copernicus studied Greek, mathematics and astronomy in addition to his official course of canon law. He rented rooms at the house of the astronomy professor Domenico Maria de Novara and began to undertake research with him, assisting him in making observations. On 9 March 1497 he observed the Moon eclipse the star Aldebaran.

In 1500 Copernicus visited Rome, as all Christians were strongly encouraged to do to celebrate the great jubilee, and he stayed there for a year lecturing to scholars on mathematics and astronomy. While in Rome he observed an eclipse of the Moon which took place on 6 November 1500. He returned to Frauenburg (also known as Frombork) in the spring of 1501 and was officially installed as a canon of the Ermland Chapter on 27 July. He had not completed his degree in canon law at Bologna so he requested his uncle that he be allowed to return to Italy both to take a law degree and to study medicine. Copernicus was granted leave on 27 July 1501:

“… principally because Nicolaus promised to study medicine, and as a helpful physician would some day advise our most reverend bishop and also the members of the Chapter.”

As this quotation indicates, the Cathedral Chapter liked his proposal to study medicine and provided the necessary funds. He set off again for Italy, his time going to Padua. Copernicus had another reason to return to Italy, which he almost certainly did not disclose, and that was to continue his studies of astronomy.

Padua was famous for its medical school and while he was there Copernicus studied both medicine and astronomy. At that time astronomy was essentially astrology and, as such, considered relevant to medicine since physicians made use of astrology. In the spring of 1503 he decided formally to obtain his doctorate in Canon Law, but he did not return to Bologna but rather took the degree at the University of Ferrara. After receiving his doctorate, Copernicus stayed in Ferrara for a few months before returning to Padua to continue his studies of medicine. There is no record that he ever graduated from Padua.

When he returned to his native land, Copernicus was again granted leave from his official duties as a canon in the Ermland Chapter at Frauenburg. This was allow him to be physician to his maternal uncle Lucas Watzenrode, the Bishop of Ermland, but he carried out far more duties for his uncle than medical ones becoming essentially his private secretary and personal advisor. For about five years he undertook these duties and during this period he lived at Heilsberg Castle, a few miles from Frauenburg, the official residence of the Bishop of Ermland.

In 1509 Copernicus published a work, which was properly printed, giving Latin translations of Greek poetry by the obscure poet Theophylactus Simocattes. While accompanying his uncle on a visit to Kraków, he gave a manuscript of the poetry book to a publisher friend there. Lucas Watzenrode died in 1512 and following this Copernicus resumed his duties as canon in the Ermland Chapter at Frauenburg. He now had more time than before to devote to his study of astronomy, having an observatory in the rooms in which he lived in one of the towers in the town’s fortifications.

Around 1514 he distributed a little book, not printed but hand written, to a few of his friends who knew that he was the author even though no author is named on the title page. This book, usually called the Little Commentary, set out Copernicus’s theory of a universe with the sun at its centre. The Little Commentary is a fascinating document. It contains seven axioms which Copernicus gives, not in the sense that they are self evident, but in the sense that he will base his conclusions on these axioms and nothing else. These axioms were:

1. There is no one centre in the universe.
2. The Earth’s centre is not the centre of the universe.
3. The centre of the universe is near the sun.
4. The distance from the Earth to the sun is imperceptible compared with the distance to the stars.
5. The rotation of the Earth accounts for the apparent daily rotation of the stars.
6. The apparent annual cycle of movements of the sun is caused by the Earth revolving round it.
7. The apparent retrograde motion of the planets is caused by the motion of the Earth from which one observes.

Some have noted that 2, 4, 5, and 7 can be deduced from 3 and 6 but it was never Copernicus’s aim to give a minimal set of axioms. The most remarkable of the axioms is 7, for although earlier scholars had claimed that the Earth moved, some claiming that it revolved round the sun, nobody before Copernicus appears to have correctly explained the retrograde motion of the outer planets. Even when he wrote his Little Commentary Copernicus was planning to write a major work, for he wrote in it:

“Here, for the sake of brevity, I have thought it desirable to omit the mathematical demonstrations intended for my larger work.”

It is likely that he wrote the Little Commentary in 1514 and began writing his major work De revolutionibus in the following year.

Given Copernicus’s nature it is clear that he would have liked to have lived a quiet life at Frauenburg, carrying out his (relatively few) duties conscientiously and devoting all his spare time to observing, developing his theories of the universe, and writing De revolutionibus. It is equally clear that his fame as an astronomer was well known for when the Fifth Lateran Council decided to improve the calendar, which was known to be out of phase with the seasons, the Pope appealed to experts for advice in 1514, one of these experts was Copernicus. Many experts went to Rome to advise the Council, but Copernicus chose to respond by letter. He did not wish to contribute more to the discussions on the calendar since he felt that the motions of the heavenly bodies was still not understood with sufficient precision.

The peace which Copernicus wished, however, was not easy to find in a period of frequent wars. The fortifications of Frauenburg that formed Copernicus’s home had been built to protect the town which had been captured by various opposing groups over the years. In 1516 Copernicus was given the task of administering the districts of Allenstein (also known as Olsztyn) and Mehlsack. He lived for four years in Allenstein Castle while carrying out these administrative duties.

Always keen to make observations, Copernicus returned to his home/observatory in Frauenburg whenever there was a reason to attend a meeting or consult with the other canons, always taking the opportunity to further his researches. However when war broke out between Poland and the Teutonic Knights towards the end of 1519 Copernicus was back in Frauenburg. After a period of war, Copernicus was sent to participate in peace talks in Braunsberg as one of a two man delegation representing the Bishop of Ermland. The peace talks failed and the war continued. Frauenburg came under siege but Copernicus continued making his observations even at this desperate time. By the autumn of 1520 Copernicus was back living in Allenstein Castle and had to organise its defence against attacking forces. The castle resisted the attack and by 1521 an uneasy peace had returned.

As a reward for his defence of Allenstein, Copernicus was appointed Commissar of Ermland and given the task of rebuilding the district after the war. His close friend, Tiedemann Giese, another canon in the Chapter, was given the task of assisting him.

As part of the recovery plan, Copernicus put forward a scheme for the reform of the currency which he presented to the Diet of Graudenz in 1522. However, despite attending the Diet and arguing strongly for his sensible proposals, they were not acted on.

Copernicus returned to Frauenburg where his life became less eventful and he had the peace and quiet that he longed for to allow him to make observations and to work on details of his heliocentric theory. Having said that he now had the peace he wanted, one should also realise that he was undertaking his mathematical and astronomical work in isolation with no colleagues with whom to discuss matters. Although Copernicus was a canon, he had never become a priest. In fact on 4 February 1531 his bishop threatened to take away his income if he did not enter the priesthood, yet Copernicus still refused.

A full account of Copernicus’s theory was apparently slow to reach a state in which he wished to see it published, and this did not happen until the very end of Copernicus’s life when he published his life’s work under the title De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (Nuremberg, 1543). In fact had it not been for Georg Joachim Rheticus, a young professor of mathematics and astronomy at the University of Wittenberg, Copernicus’s masterpiece might never have been published. In May 1539 Rheticus arrived at Frauenburg where he spent about two years with Copernicus. Rheticus wrote of his visit:

“I heard of the fame of Master Nicolaus Copernicus in the northern lands, and although the University of Wittenberg had made me a Public Professor in those arts, nonetheless, I did not think that I should be content until I had learned something more through the instruction of that man. And I also say that I regret neither the financial expenses nor the long journey nor the remaining hardships. Yet, it seems to me that there came a great reward for these troubles, namely that I, a rather daring young man, compelled this venerable man to share his ideas sooner in this discipline with the whole world.”

We should note that Rheticus was a Protestant, so in those troubled times of the Reformation he took somewhat of a risk visiting a Catholic stronghold. In September 1539 Rheticus went to Danzig, visiting the mayor of Danzig, who gave him some financial assistance to help publish the Narratio Prima or, to give it its full title First report to Johann Schöner on the Books of the Revolutions of the learned gentleman and distinguished mathematician, the Reverend Doctor Nicolaus Copernicus of Torun, Canon of Warmia, by a certain youth devoted to mathematics. The publication of this work encouraged Copernicus to publish the full mathematical details of his theory which he had promised 27 years earlier. Swerdlow writes:

“Copernicus could not have asked for a more erudite, elegant, and enthusiastic introduction of his new astronomy to the world of good letters; indeed to this day the “Narratio Prima” remains the best introduction to Copernicus’s work.”

In his First Report Rheticus wrote about Copernicus’s way of working:

“… my teacher always had before his eyes the observations of all ages together with his own, assembled in order as in catalogues; then when some conclusion must be drawn or contribution made to the science and its principles, he proceeds from the earliest observations to his own, seeking the mutual relationship which harmonizes them all; the results thus obtained by correct inference under the guidance of Urania he then compares with the hypothesis of Ptolemy and the ancients; and having made a most careful examination of these hypotheses, he finds that astronomical proof requires their rejection; he assumes new hypotheses, not indeed without divine inspiration and the favour of the gods; by applying mathematics, he geometrically establishes the conclusions which can be drawn from them by correct inference; he then harmonizes the ancient observations and his own with the hypotheses which he has adopted; and after performing all these operations he finally writes down the laws of astronomy …”

While living with Copernicus, Rheticus wrote to several people reporting on the progress Copernicus was making. For example on 2nd June 1541 Rheticus wrote that Copernicus:

“… is enjoying quite good health and is writing a great deal …”

while he wrote that on 9 June Copernicus:

“… had finally overcome his prolonged reluctance to release his volume for publication.”

By 29 August De revolutionibus orbium coelestium was ready for the printer. Rheticus took the manuscript with him when he returned to his teaching duties at Wittenberg, and gave it the printer Johann Petreius in Nürnberg. This was a leading centre for printing and Petreius was the best printer in town. However, since he was unable to stay to supervise the printing he asked Andreas Osiander, a Lutheran theologian with considerable experience of printing mathematical texts, to undertake the task. What Osiander did was to write a letter to the reader, inserted in place of Copernicus’s original Preface following the title page, in which he claimed that the results of the book were not intended as the truth, rather that they merely presented a simpler way to calculate the positions of the heavenly bodies. The letter was unsigned and the true author of the letter was not revealed publicly until Kepler did so 50 years later. Osiander also subtly changed the title to make it appear less like a claim of the real world. Some are appalled at this gigantic piece of deception by Osiander, as Rheticus was at the time, others feel that it was only because of Osiander’s Preface that Copernicus’s work was read and not immediately condemned.

In De revolutionibus Copernicus states several reasons why it is logical that the sun would be at the centre of the universe:

“At the middle of all things lies the sun. As the location of this luminary in the cosmos, that most beautiful temple, would there be any other place or any better place than the centre, from which it can light up everything at the same time? Hence the sun is not inappropriately called by some the lamp of the universe, by others its mind, and by others its ruler.”

Copernicus’s cosmology placed a motionless sun not at the centre of the universe, but close to the centre, and also involved giving several distinct motions to the Earth. The problem that Copernicus faced was that he assumed all motion was circular so, like Ptolemy, was forced into using epicycles. It was consequently considered implausible by the most of his contemporaries, and by most astronomers and natural philosophers until the middle of the seventeenth century. In the intended Preface of De revolutionibus orbium coelestium Copernicus showed that he was fully aware of the criticisms that his work would attract:

“Perhaps there will be babblers who, although completely ignorant of mathematics, nevertheless take it upon themselves to pass judgement on mathematical questions and, badly distorting some passages of Scripture to their purpose, will dare find fault with my undertaking and censure it. I disregard them even to the extent as despising their criticism as unfounded.”

Its notable defenders included Kepler and Galileo while theoretical evidence for the Copernican theory was provided by Newton’s theory of universal gravitation around 150 years later.

Copernicus is said to have received a copy of the printed book, consisting of about 200 pages written in Latin, for the first time on his deathbed. He died of a cerebral haemorrhage.

Brahe, who did not accept Copernicus’s claim that the Earth moved round the sun, nevertheless wrote:

“Through observations made by himself [Copernicus] discovered certain gaps in Ptolemy, and he concluded that the hypotheses established by Ptolemy admit something unsuitable in violation of the axioms of mathematics. Moreover, he found the Alfonsine computations in disagreement with the motions of the heavens. Therefore, with wonderful intellectual acumen he established different hypotheses. He restored the science of the heavenly motions in such a way that nobody before him had a more accurate knowledge of the movements of the heavenly bodies.”

Rudnicki gives this appreciation of Copernicus:

“He was truly creative. His scientific method, though determined by the horizons of contemporary knowledge and belief, was yet ideally objective. Ethically, his actions throughout his life bear witness to the highest standards. He did good. He earned the general respect and honour of his contemporaries. For many years he served self-sacrificingly the cause of his native country. But he knew no private, domestic joys.”

Johannes Kepler

Johannes Kepler

Kepler was born in the small town of Weil der Stadt in Swabia and moved to nearby Leonberg with his parents in 1576. His father was a mercenary soldier and his mother the daughter of an innkeeper. Johannes was their first child. His father left home for the last time when Johannes was five, and is believed to have died in the war in the Netherlands. As a child, Kepler lived with his mother in his grandfather’s inn. He tells us that he used to help by serving in the inn. One imagines customers were sometimes bemused by the child’s unusual competence at arithmetic.

Kepler’s early education was in a local school and then at a nearby seminary, from which, intending to be ordained, he went on to enrol at the University of Tübingen, then (as now) a bastion of Lutheran orthodoxy.

Throughout his life, Kepler was a profoundly religious man. All his writings contain numerous references to God, and he saw his work as a fulfilment of his Christian duty to understand the works of God. Man being, as Kepler believed, made in the image of God, was clearly capable of understanding the Universe that He had created. Moreover, Kepler was convinced that God had made the Universe according to a mathematical plan (a belief found in the works of Plato and associated with Pythagoras). Since it was generally accepted at the time that mathematics provided a secure method of arriving at truths about the world (Euclid’s common notions and postulates being regarded as actually true), we have here a strategy for understanding the Universe. Since some authors have given Kepler a name for irrationality, it is worth noting that this rather hopeful epistemology is very far indeed from the mystic’s conviction that things can only be understood in an imprecise way that relies upon insights that are not subject to reason. Kepler does indeed repeatedly thank God for granting him insights, but the insights are presented as rational.

At this time, it was usual for all students at a university to attend courses on “mathematics”. In principle this included the four mathematical sciences: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. It seems, however, that what was taught depended on the particular university. At Tübingen Kepler was taught astronomy by one of the leading astronomers of the day, Michael Mästlin (1550 – 1631). The astronomy of the curriculum was, of course, geocentric astronomy, that is the current version of the Ptolemaic system, in which all seven planets – Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn – moved round the Earth, their positions against the fixed stars being calculated by combining circular motions. This system was more or less in accord with current (Aristotelian) notions of physics, though there were certain difficulties, such as whether one might consider as ‘uniform’ (and therefore acceptable as obviously eternal) a circular motion that was not uniform about its own centre but about another point (called an ‘equant’). However, it seems that on the whole astronomers (who saw themselves as ‘mathematicians’) were content to carry on calculating positions of planets and leave it to natural philosophers to worry about whether the mathematical models corresponded to physical mechanisms. Kepler did not take this attitude. His earliest published work (1596) proposes to consider the actual paths of the planets, not the circles used to construct them.

At Tübingen, Kepler studied not only mathematics but also Greek and Hebrew (both necessary for reading the scriptures in their original languages). Teaching was in Latin. At the end of his first year Kepler got ‘A’s for everything except mathematics. Probably Mästlin was trying to tell him he could do better, because Kepler was in fact one of the select pupils to whom he chose to teach more advanced astronomy by introducing them to the new, heliocentric cosmological system of Copernicus. It was from Mästlin that Kepler learned that the preface to On the revolutions, explaining that this was ‘only mathematics’, was not by Copernicus. Kepler seems to have accepted almost instantly that the Copernican system was physically true; his reasons for accepting it will be discussed in connection with his first cosmological model (see below).

It seems that even in Kepler’s student days there were indications that his religious beliefs were not entirely in accord with the orthodox Lutheranism current in Tübingen and formulated in the ‘Augsburg Confession’ (Confessio Augustana). Kepler’s problems with this Protestant orthodoxy concerned the supposed relation between matter and ‘spirit’ (a non-material entity) in the doctrine of the Eucharist. This ties up with Kepler’s astronomy to the extent that he apparently found somewhat similar intellectual difficulties in explaining how ‘force’ from the Sun could affect the planets. In his writings, Kepler is given to laying his opinions on the line – which is very convenient for historians. In real life, it seems likely that a similar tendency to openness led the authorities at Tübingen to entertain well-founded doubts about his religious orthodoxy. These may explain why Mästlin persuaded Kepler to abandon plans for ordination and instead take up a post teaching mathematics in Graz. Religious intolerance sharpened in the following years. Kepler was excommunicated in 1612. This caused him much pain, but despite his (by then) relatively high social standing, as Imperial Mathematician, he never succeeded in getting the ban lifted.

Instead of the seven planets in standard geocentric astronomy the Copernican system had only six, the Moon having become a body of kind previously unknown to astronomy, which Kepler was later to call a ‘satellite’ (a name he coined in 1610 to describe the moons that Galileo had discovered were orbiting Jupiter, literally meaning ‘attendant’).

Moreover, in geocentric astronomy there was no way of using observations to find the relative sizes of the planetary orbs; they were simply assumed to be in contact. This seemed to require no explanation, since it fitted nicely with natural philosophers’ belief that the whole system was turned from the movement of the outermost sphere, one (or maybe two) beyond the sphere of the ‘fixed’ stars (the ones whose pattern made the constellations), beyond the sphere of Saturn. In the Copernican system, the fact that the annual component of each planetary motion was a reflection of the annual motion of the Earth allowed one to use observations to calculate the size of each planet’s path, and it turned out that there were huge spaces between the planets.

Kepler’s answer to these questions, described in his Mystery of the Cosmos (Mysterium cosmographicum, Tübingen, 1596), looks bizarre to twentieth-century readers (see the figure on the right). He suggested that if a sphere were drawn to touch the inside of the path of Saturn, and a cube were inscribed in the sphere, then the sphere inscribed in that cube would be the sphere circumscribing the path of Jupiter. Then if a regular tetrahedron were drawn in the sphere inscribing the path of Jupiter, the insphere of the tetrahedron would be the sphere circumscribing the path of Mars, and so inwards, putting the regular dodecahedron between Mars and Earth, the regular icosahedron between Earth and Venus, and the regular octahedron between Venus and Mercury. This explains the number of planets perfectly: there are only five convex regular solids (as is proved in Euclid’s Elements , Book 13). It also gives a convincing fit with the sizes of the paths as deduced by Copernicus, the greatest error being less than 10% (which is spectacularly good for a cosmological model even now). Kepler did not express himself in terms of percentage errors, and his is in fact the first mathematical cosmological model, but it is easy to see why he believed that the observational evidence supported his theory.
Kepler saw his cosmological theory as providing evidence for the Copernican theory. Before presenting his own theory he gave arguments to establish the plausibility of the Copernican theory itself. Kepler asserts that its advantages over the geocentric theory are in its greater explanatory power. For instance, the Copernican theory can explain why Venus and Mercury are never seen very far from the Sun (they lie between Earth and the Sun) whereas in the geocentric theory there is no explanation of this fact. Kepler lists nine such questions in the first chapter of the Mysterium cosmographicum.

Kepler carried out this work while he was teaching in Graz, but the book was seen through the press in Tübingen by Mästlin. The agreement with values deduced from observation was not exact, and Kepler hoped that better observations would improve the agreement, so he sent a copy of the Mysterium cosmographicum to one of the foremost observational astronomers of the time, Tycho Brahe (1546 – 1601). Tycho, then working in Prague (at that time the capital of the Holy Roman Empire), had in fact already written to Mästlin in search of a mathematical assistant. Kepler got the job.

Naturally enough, Tycho’s priorities were not the same as Kepler’s, and Kepler soon found himself working on the intractable problem of the orbit of Mars. He continued to work on this after Tycho died (in 1601) and Kepler succeeded him as Imperial Mathematician. Conventionally, orbits were compounded of circles, and rather few observational values were required to fix the relative radii and positions of the circles. Tycho had made a huge number of observations and Kepler determined to make the best possible use of them. Essentially, he had so many observations available that once he had constructed a possible orbit he was able to check it against further observations until satisfactory agreement was reached. Kepler concluded that the orbit of Mars was an ellipse with the Sun in one of its foci (a result which when extended to all the planets is now called “Kepler’s First Law”), and that a line joining the planet to the Sun swept out equal areas in equal times as the planet described its orbit (“Kepler’s Second Law”), that is the area is used as a measure of time. After this work was published in New Astronomy … (Astronomia nova, …, Heidelberg, 1609), Kepler found orbits for the other planets, thus establishing that the two laws held for them too. Both laws relate the motion of the planet to the Sun; Kepler’s Copernicanism was crucial to his reasoning and to his deductions.

The actual process of calculation for Mars was immensely laborious – there are nearly a thousand surviving folio sheets of arithmetic – and Kepler himself refers to this work as ‘my war with Mars’, but the result was an orbit which agrees with modern results so exactly that the comparison has to make allowance for secular changes in the orbit since Kepler’s time.

It was crucial to Kepler’s method of checking possible orbits against observations that he have an idea of what should be accepted as adequate agreement. From this arises the first explicit use of the concept of observational error. Kepler may have owed this notion at least partly to Tycho, who made detailed checks on the performance of his instruments.

The work on Mars was essentially completed by 1605, but there were delays in getting the book published. Meanwhile, in response to concerns about the different apparent diameter of the Moon when observed directly and when observed using a camera obscura, Kepler did some work on optics, and came up with the first correct mathematical theory of the camera obscura and the first correct explanation of the working of the human eye, with an upside-down picture formed on the retina. These results were published in Supplements to Witelo, on the optical part of astronomy (Ad Vitellionem paralipomena, quibus astronomiae pars optica traditur, Frankfurt, 1604). He also wrote about the New Star of 1604, now usually called ‘Kepler’s supernova’, rejecting numerous explanations, and remarking at one point that of course this star could just be a special creation ‘but before we come to [that] I think we should try everything else’ (On the New Star, De stella nova, Prague, 1606, Chapter 22, KGW 1, p. 257, line 23).

Following Galileo’s use of the telescope in discovering the moons of Jupiter, published in his Sidereal Messenger (Venice, 1610), to which Kepler had written an enthusiastic reply (1610), Kepler wrote a study of the properties of lenses (the first such work on optics) in which he presented a new design of telescope, using two convex lenses (Dioptrice, Prague, 1611). This design, in which the final image is inverted, was so successful that it is now usually known not as a Keplerian telescope but simply as the astronomical telescope.

Kepler’s years in Prague were relatively peaceful, and scientifically extremely productive. In fact, even when things went badly, he seems never to have allowed external circumstances to prevent him from getting on with his work. Things began to go very badly in late 1611. First, his seven year old son died. Kepler wrote to a friend that this death was particularly hard to bear because the child reminded him so much of himself at that age. Then Kepler’s wife died. Then the Emperor Rudolf, whose health was failing, was forced to abdicate in favour of his brother Matthias, who, like Rudolf, was a Catholic but (unlike Rudolf) did not believe in tolerance of Protestants. Kepler had to leave Prague. Before he departed he had his wife’s body moved into the son’s grave, and wrote a Latin epitaph for them. He and his remaining children moved to Linz (now in Austria).

Kepler seems to have married his first wife, Barbara, for love (though the marriage was arranged through a broker). The second marriage, in 1613, was a matter of practical necessity; he needed someone to look after the children. Kepler’s new wife, Susanna, had a crash course in Kepler’s character: the dedicatory letter to the resultant book explains that at the wedding celebrations he noticed that the volumes of wine barrels were estimated by means of a rod slipped in diagonally through the bung-hole, and he began to wonder how that could work. The result was a study of the volumes of solids of revolution (New Stereometry of wine barrels …, Nova stereometria doliorum …, Linz, 1615) in which Kepler, basing himself on the work of Archimedes, used a resolution into ‘indivisibles’. This method was later developed by Bonaventura Cavalieri (c. 1598 – 1647) and is part of the ancestry of the infinitesimal calculus.

Kepler’s main task as Imperial Mathematician was to write astronomical tables, based on Tycho’s observations, but what he really wanted to do was write The Harmony of the World, planned since 1599 as a development of his Mystery of the Cosmos. This second work on cosmology (Harmonices mundi libri V, Linz, 1619) presents a more elaborate mathematical model than the earlier one, though the polyhedra are still there. The mathematics in this work includes the first systematic treatment of tessellations, a proof that there are only thirteen convex uniform polyhedra (the Archimedean solids) and the first account of two non-convex regular polyhedra (all in Book 2). The Harmony of the World also contains what is now known as ‘Kepler’s Third Law’, that for any two planets the ratio of the squares of their periods will be the same as the ratio of the cubes of the mean radii of their orbits. From the first, Kepler had sought a rule relating the sizes of the orbits to the periods, but there was no slow series of steps towards this law as there had been towards the other two. In fact, although the Third Law plays an important part in some of the final sections of the printed version of the Harmony of the World, it was not actually discovered until the work was in press. Kepler made last-minute revisions. He himself tells the story of the eventual success:

…and if you want the exact moment in time, it was conceived mentally on 8th March in this year one thousand six hundred and eighteen, but submitted to calculation in an unlucky way, and therefore rejected as false, and finally returning on the 15th of May and adopting a new line of attack, stormed the darkness of my mind. So strong was the support from the combination of my labour of seventeen years on the observations of Brahe and the present study, which conspired together, that at first I believed I was dreaming, and assuming my conclusion among my basic premises. But it is absolutely certain and exact that “the proportion between the periodic times of any two planets is precisely the sesquialterate proportion of their mean distances …”
(Harmonice mundi Book 5, Chapter 3, trans. Aiton, Duncan and Field, p. 411).

While Kepler was working on his Harmony of the World, his mother was charged with witchcraft. He enlisted the help of the legal faculty at Tübingen. Katharina Kepler was eventually released, at least partly as a result of technical objections arising from the authorities’ failure to follow the correct legal procedures in the use of torture. The surviving documents are chilling. However, Kepler continued to work. In the coach, on his journey to Württemberg to defend his mother, he read a work on music theory by Vincenzo Galilei (c.1520 – 1591, Galileo’s father), to which there are numerous references in The Harmony of the World.

Calculating tables, the normal business for an astronomer, always involved heavy arithmetic. Kepler was accordingly delighted when in 1616 he came across Napier’s work on logarithms (published in 1614). However, Mästlin promptly told him first that it was unseemly for a serious mathematician to rejoice over a mere aid to calculation and second that it was unwise to trust logarithms because no-one understood how they worked. (Similar comments were made about computers in the early 1960s.) Kepler’s answer to the second objection was to publish a proof of how logarithms worked, based on an impeccably respectable source: Euclid’s Elements Book 5. Kepler calculated tables of eight-figure logarithms, which were published with the Rudolphine Tables (Ulm, 1628). The astronomical tables used not only Tycho’s observations, but also Kepler’s first two laws. All astronomical tables that made use of new observations were accurate for the first few years after publication. What was remarkable about the Rudolphine Tables was that they proved to be accurate over decades. And as the years mounted up, the continued accuracy of the tables was, naturally, seen as an argument for the correctness of Kepler’s laws, and thus for the correctness of the heliocentric astronomy. Kepler’s fulfilment of his dull official task as Imperial Mathematician led to the fulfilment of his dearest wish, to help establish Copernicanism.

By the time the Rudolphine Tables were published Kepler was, in fact, no longer working for the Emperor (he had left Linz in 1626), but for Albrecht von Wallenstein (1583 – 1632), one of the few successful military leaders in the Thirty Years’ War (1618 – 1648).

Wallenstein, like the emperor Rudolf, expected Kepler to give him advice based on astrology. Kepler naturally had to obey, but repeatedly points out that he does not believe precise predictions can be made. Like most people of the time, Kepler accepted the principle of astrology, that heavenly bodies could influence what happened on Earth (the clearest examples being the Sun causing the seasons and the Moon the tides) but as a Copernican he did not believe in the physical reality of the constellations. His astrology was based only on the angles between the positions of heavenly bodies (‘astrological aspects’). He expresses utter contempt for the complicated systems of conventional astrology.

Kepler died in Regensburg, after a short illness. He was staying in the city on his way to collect some money owing to him in connection with the Rudolphine Tables. He was buried in the local church, but this was destroyed in the course of the Thirty Years’ War and nothing remains of the tomb.

Hernán Cortés

Hernán Cortés

Hernán Cortés (1485-1547) was a Spanish conquistador, responsible for the audacious conquest of the Aztec Empire in Central Mexico in 1519. With a force of 600 Spanish soldiers he was able to conquer a vast Empire that had tens of thousands of warriors. He did it through a combination of ruthlessness, guile, violence and luck.

Like many of those who would eventually become conquistadores in the Americas, Cortés was born in the Castilian province of Extremadura, in the small city of Medellín. He came from a respected military family but was a rather sickly child. He went to the distinguished University of Salamanca to study law but dropped out before long. By this time, tales of the wonders of the New World were being told all over Spain, appealing to teens like Cortés. He decided to head to Hispaniola to seek his fortune.

Cortés was fairly well educated and had family connections, so when he arrived in Hispaniola in 1503 he soon found work as a notary and was given a plot of land and a number of natives to work it for him. His health improved and he trained as a soldier, and took part in the subjugation of those parts of Hispaniola that had held out against the Spanish. He became known as a good leader, an intelligent administrator, and a ruthless fighter. It was these traits that made Diego Velázquez select him for his expedition to Cuba.

Velázquez was tasked with the subjugation of the island of Cuba. He set out with three ships and 300 men, including young Cortés, who was a clerk assigned to the treasurer of the expedition. Ironically, also along on the expedition was Bartolomé de Las Casas, who would eventually describe the horrors of the conquest and denounce the conquistadores. The conquest of Cuba was marked by a number of unspeakable abuses, including massacres and the burning alive of native chief Hatuey. Cortés distinguished himself as a soldier and administrator and was made mayor of the new city of Santiago. His influence grew, and he watched in 1517-1518 as two expeditions to conquer the mainland met with failure.

In 1518 it was Cortés’ turn. With 600 men, he began one of the most audacious feats in history: the conquest of the Aztec Empire, which at that time had tens if not hundreds of thousands of warriors. After landing with his men, he made his way to Tenochtitlán, capital of the Empire. Along the way, he defeated Aztec vassal states, adding their strength to his. He reached Tenochtitlán in 1519 and was able to occupy it without a fight. When Governor Velázquez of Cuba sent an expedition under Pánfilo de Narváez to rein in Cortés, he had to leave the city to fight. He defeated Narváez and added his men to his own.

Cortés returned to Tenochtitlán with his reinforcements, but found it in a state of uproar, as one of his lieutenants, Pedro de Alvarado, had ordered a massacre of Aztec nobility in his absence. Aztec Emperor Moctezuma was killed by his own people while trying to placate the crowd and an angry mob chased the Spanish from the city in what became known as the Noche Triste, or “sad night.” Cortés was able to regroup, re-take the city and by 1521 he was in charge of Tenochtitlán for good.

Cortés never could have pulled off the defeat of the Aztec Empire without a great deal of good luck. First of all, he had found Gerónimo de Aguilar, a Spanish priest who had been shipwrecked on the mainland several years before and who could speak the Maya language. Between Aguilar and a woman slave named Malinche who could speak Maya and Nahuatl, Cortés was able to communicate effectively during his conquest.

Cortés also had amazing luck in terms of the Aztec vassal states. They nominally owed allegiance to the Aztec, but in reality hated them and Cortés was able to exploit this hatred. With thousands of native warriors as allies, he was able to meet the Aztecs on strong terms and bring about their downfall.

He also benefited from the fact that Moctezuma was a weak leader, who looked for divine signs before making any decisions. Cortés believed that Moctezuma thought that the Spanish were emissaries from the God Quetzalcoatl, which may have caused him to wait before crushing them.

Cortés’ final stroke of luck was the timely arrival of reinforcements under the inept Pánfilo de Narváez. Governor Velázquez intended to weaken Cortés and bring him back to Cuba, but after Narváez was defeated he wound up providing Cortés with men and supplies that he desperately needed.

From 1521 to 1528 Cortés served as governor of New Spain, as Mexico came to be known. The crown sent administrators, and Cortés himself oversaw the rebuilding of the city and exploration expeditions into other parts of Mexico. Cortés still had many enemies, however, and his repeated insubordination caused him to have very little support from the crown. In 1528 he returned to Spain to plead his case for more power. What he got was a mixed bag: he was elevated to noble status and given the title of Marquis of the Oaxaca Valley, one of the richest territories in the New World. He was also, however, removed from the governorship and would never again wield much power in the New World.

Cortés never lost the spirit of adventure. He personally financed and led an expedition to explore Baja California in the late 1530’s and fought with royal forces in Algiers in 1541. After that ended in a fiasco, he decided to return to Mexico, but instead died of pleuritis in 1547 at the age of 62.

In his bold but ghastly conquest of the Aztecs, Cortés left a trail of bloodshed that other conquistadores would follow. The “blueprint” that Cortés established – dividing native populations against one another and exploiting traditional enmities – was one followed later by Pizarro in Peru, Alvarado in Central America and other conquests in the Americas.

Cortés’ success in bringing down the mighty Aztec Empire quickly became the stuff of legend back in Spain. Most of his soldiers had been peasants or younger sons of minor nobility back in Spain and had little to look forward to in terms of wealth or prestige. After the conquest, however, any of his men who had survived were given generous lands and plenty of native slaves, in addition to gold. These rags-to-riches stories drew thousands of Spanish to the New World, each of whom wished to follow in Cortés’ bloody footprints.

In the short run, this was (in a sense) good for the Spanish crown, because native populations were quickly subjugated by these ruthless conquistadores. In the long run, however, it proved disastrous because these men were the wrong sort of colonizers: they were not farmers or tradesmen, but soldiers, slavers and mercenaries who abhorred honest work.

One of Cortés’ lasting legacies was the encomienda system that he instituted in Mexico. The encomienda system, a left over relic from the days of the reconquest, basically “entrusted” a tract of land and any number of natives to a Spaniard, often a conquistador. The encomendero, as he was called, had certain rights and responsibilities. Basically, he agreed to provide religious education for the natives in exchange for labor. In reality, the encomienda system amounted to little more than legalized, enforced slavery and made the encomenderos very wealthy and powerful. The Spanish crown would eventually regret allowing the encomienda system to take root in the New World, as it later proved very difficult to get rid of once reports of abuses began piling up.

In modern Mexico, Cortés is often a reviled figure. Modern Mexicans identify as closely with their native past as with their European one, and they see Cortés as a monster and butcher. Equally reviled (if not more so) is the figure of Malinche, or Doña Marina, Cortés’ Nahua slave/consort. If not for Malinche’s language skills and willing assistance, the conquest of the Aztec Empire would almost certainly have taken a different path.

Alfred Nobel

Alfred Nobel

Alfred Nobel was born in Stockholm on October 21, 1833. His father Immanuel Nobel was an engineer and inventor who built bridges and buildings in Stockholm. In connection with his construction work Immanuel Nobel also experimented with different techniques for blasting rocks.

Alfred’s mother, born Andriette Ahlsell, came from a wealthy family. Due to misfortunes in his construction work caused by the loss of some barges of building material, Immanuel Nobel was forced into bankruptcy the same year Alfred Nobel was born. In 1837 Immanuel Nobel left Stockholm and his family to start a new career in Finland and in Russia. To support the family, Andriette Nobel started a grocery store which provided a modest income. Meanwhile Immanuel Nobel was successful in his new enterprise in St. Petersburg, Russia. He started a mechanical workshop which provided equipment for the Russian army and he also convinced the Tsar and his generals that naval mines could be used to block enemy naval ships from threatening the city.

The naval mines designed by Immanuel Nobel were simple devices consisting of submerged wooden casks filled with gunpowder. Anchored below the surface of the Gulf of Finland, they effectively deterred the British Royal Navy from moving into firing range of St. Petersburg during the Crimean war (1853-1856). Immanuel Nobel was also a pioneer in arms manufacture and in designing steam engines.

Successful in his industrial and business ventures, Immanuel Nobel was able, in 1842, to bring his family to St. Petersburg. There, his sons were given a first class education by private teachers. The training included natural sciences, languages and literature. By the age of 17 Alfred Nobel was fluent in Swedish, Russian, French, English and German. His primary interests were in English literature and poetry as well as in chemistry and physics. Alfred’s father, who wanted his sons to join his enterprise as engineers, disliked Alfred’s interest in poetry and found his son rather introverted. In order to widen Alfred’s horizons his father sent him abroad for further training in chemical engineering. During a two year period Alfred Nobel visited Sweden, Germany, France and the United States. In Paris, the city he came to like best, he worked in the private laboratory of Professor T. J. Pelouze, a famous chemist. There he met the young Italian chemist Ascanio Sobrero who, three years earlier, had invented nitroglycerine, a highly explosive liquid. Nitroglycerine was produced by mixing glycerine with sulfuric and nitric acid. It was considered too dangerous to be of any practical use. Although its explosive power greatly exceeded that of gunpowder, the liquid would explode in a very unpredictable manner if subjected to heat and pressure. Alfred Nobel became very interested in nitroglycerine and how it could be put to practical use in construction work. He also realized that the safety problems had to be solved and a method had to be developed for the controlled detonation of nitroglycerine. In the United States he visited John Ericsson, the Swedish-American engineer who had developed the screw propeller for ships. In 1852 Alfred Nobel was asked to come back and work in the family enterprise which was booming because of its deliveries to the Russian army. Together with his father he performed experiments to develop nitroglycerine as a commercially and technically useful explosive. As the war ended and conditions changed, Immanuel Nobel was again forced into bankruptcy. Immanuel and two of his sons, Alfred and Emil, left St. Petersburg together and returned to Stockholm. His other two sons, Robert and Ludvig, remained in St. Petersburg. With some difficulties they managed to salvage the family enterprise and then went on to develop the oil industry in the southern part of the Russian empire. They were very successful and became some of the wealthiest persons of their time.

After his return to Sweden in 1863, Alfred Nobel concentrated on developing nitroglycerine as an explosive. Several explosions, including one (1864) in which his brother Emil and several other persons were killed, convinced the authorities that nitroglycerine production was exceedingly dangerous. They forbade further experimentation with nitroglycerine within the Stockholm city limits and Alfred Nobel had to move his experimentation to a barge anchored on Lake Mälaren. Alfred was not discouraged and in 1864 he was able to start mass production of nitroglycerine. To make the handling of nitroglycerine safer Alfred Nobel experimented with different additives. He soon found that mixing nitroglycerine with kieselguhr would turn the liquid into a paste which could be shaped into rods of a size and form suitable for insertion into drilling holes. In 1867 he patented this material under the name of dynamite. To be able to detonate the dynamite rods he also invented a detonator (blasting cap) which could be ignited by lighting a fuse. These inventions were made at the same time as the diamond drilling crown and the pneumatic drill came into general use. Together these inventions drastically reduced the cost of blasting rock, drilling tunnels, building canals and many other forms of construction work.

The market for dynamite and detonating caps grew very rapidly and Alfred Nobel also proved himself to be a very skillful entrepreneur and businessman. By 1865 his factory in Krümmel near Hamburg, Germany, was exporting nitroglycerine explosives to other countries in Europe, America and Australia. Over the years he founded factories and laboratories in some 90 different places in more than 20 countries. Although he lived in Paris much of his life he was constantly traveling. Victor Hugo at one time described him as “Europe’s richest vagabond”. When he was not traveling or engaging in business activities Nobel himself worked intensively in his various laboratories, first in Stockholm and later in Hamburg (Germany), Ardeer (Scotland), Paris and Sevran (France), Karlskoga (Sweden) and San Remo (Italy). He focused on the development of explosives technology as well as other chemical inventions, including such materials as synthetic rubber and leather, artificial silk, etc. By the time of his death in 1896 he had 355 patents.

Intensive work and travel did not leave much time for a private life. At the age of 43 he was feeling like an old man. At this time he advertised in a newspaper “Wealthy, highly-educated elderly gentleman seeks lady of mature age, versed in languages, as secretary and supervisor of household.” The most qualified applicant turned out to be an Austrian woman, Countess Bertha Kinsky. After working a very short time for Nobel she decided to return to Austria to marry Count Arthur von Suttner. In spite of this Alfred Nobel and Bertha von Suttner remained friends and kept writing letters to each other for decades. Over the years Bertha von Suttner became increasingly critical of the arms race. She wrote a famous book, Lay Down Your Arms and became a prominent figure in the peace movement. No doubt this influenced Alfred Nobel when he wrote his final will which was to include a Prize for persons or organizations who promoted peace. Several years after the death of Alfred Nobel, the Norwegian Storting (Parliament) decided to award the 1905 Nobel Peace Prize to Bertha von Suttner.

Alfred Nobel’s greatness lay in his ability to combine the penetrating mind of the scientist and inventor with the forward-looking dynamism of the industrialist. Nobel was very interested in social and peace-related issues and held what were considered radical views in his era. He had a great interest in literature and wrote his own poetry and dramatic works. The Nobel Prizes became an extension and a fulfillment of his lifetime interests.

Many of the companies founded by Nobel have developed into industrial enterprises that still play a prominent role in the world economy, for example Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), Great Britain; Société Centrale de Dynamite, France; and Dyno Industries in Norway. Toward the end of his life, he acquired the company AB Bofors in Karlskoga, where Björkborn Manor became his Swedish home. Alfred Nobel died in San Remo, Italy, on December 10, 1896. When his will was opened it came as a surprise that his fortune was to be used for Prizes in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature and Peace. The executors of his will were two young engineers, Ragnar Sohlman and Rudolf Lilljequist. They set about forming the Nobel Foundation as an organization to take care of the financial assets left by Nobel for this purpose and to coordinate the work of the Prize-Awarding Institutions. This was not without its difficulties since the will was contested by relatives and questioned by authorities in various countries.



Atlantis (in Greek, Ἀτλαντὶς νῆσος, “island of Atlas”) is a legendary island first mentioned in Plato’s dialogues Timaeus and Critias, written about 360 BC. According to Plato, Atlantis was a naval power lying “in front of the Pillars of Hercules” that conquered many parts of Western Europe and Africa 9,000 years before the time of Solon, or approximately 9600 BC. After a failed attempt to invade Athens, Atlantis sank into the ocean “in a single day and night of misfortune”.

Scholars dispute whether and how much Plato’s story or account was inspired by older traditions. In Critias, Plato claims that his accounts of ancient Athens and Atlantis stem from a visit to Egypt by the legendary Athenian lawgiver Solon in the 6th century BC. In Egypt, Solon met a priest of Sais, who translated the history of ancient Athens and Atlantis, recorded on papyri in Egyptian hieroglyphs, into Greek. Some scholars argue Plato drew upon memories of past events such as the Thera eruption or the Trojan War, while others insist that he took inspiration from contemporary events like the destruction of Helike in 373 BC or the failed Athenian invasion of Sicily in 415–413 BC.

The possible existence of a genuine Atlantis was discussed throughout classical antiquity, but it was usually rejected and occasionally parodied by later authors. Alan Cameron states: “It is only in modern times that people have taken the Atlantis story seriously; no one did so in antiquity”. The Timaeus remained known in a Latin rendition by Calcidius through the Middle Ages, and the allegorical aspect of Atlantis was taken up by Humanists in utopian works of several Renaissance writers, such as Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis and Thomas More’s Utopia. Its name has become a byword for any and all supposed advanced prehistoric lost civilizations.

Plato’s dialogues Timaeus and Critias, written in 360 BC, contain the earliest references to Atlantis. For unknown reasons, Plato never completed Critias. Plato introduced Atlantis in Timaeus:

“For it is related in our records how once upon a time your State stayed the course of a mighty host, which, starting from a distant point in the Atlantic ocean, was insolently advancing to attack the whole of Europe, and Asia to boot. For the ocean there was at that time navigable; for in front of the mouth which you Greeks call, as you say, ‘the pillars of Heracles,’ there lay an island which was larger than Libya and Asia together; and it was possible for the travelers of that time to cross from it to the other islands, and from the islands to the whole of the continent over against them which encompasses that veritable ocean. For all that we have here, lying within the mouth of which we speak, is evidently a haven having a narrow entrance; but that yonder is a real ocean, and the land surrounding it may most rightly be called, in the fullest and truest sense, a continent. Now in this island of Atlantis there existed a confederation of kings, of great and marvelous power, which held sway over all the island, and over many other islands also and parts of the continent.”

The four persons appearing in those two dialogues are the politicians Critias and Hermocrates as well as the philosophers Socrates and Timaeus of Locri, although only Critias speaks of Atlantis. In his works Plato makes extensive use of the Socratic dialogues in order to discuss contrary positions within the context of a supposition.

The Timaeus begins with an introduction, followed by an account of the creations and structure of the universe and ancient civilizations. In the introduction, Socrates muses about the perfect society, described in Plato’s Republic (c. 380 BC), and wonders if he and his guests might recollect a story which exemplifies such a society. Critias mentions an allegedly historical tale that would make the perfect example, and follows by describing Atlantis as is recorded in the Critias. In his account, ancient Athens seems to represent the “perfect society” and Atlantis its opponent, representing the very antithesis of the “perfect” traits described in the Republic.

According to Critias, the Hellenic gods of old divided the land so that each god might own a lot; Poseidon was appropriately, and to his liking, bequeathed the island of Atlantis. The island was larger than Ancient Libya and Asia Minor combined, but it afterwards was sunk by an earthquake and became an impassable mud shoal, inhibiting travel to any part of the ocean. The Egyptians, Plato asserted, described Atlantis as an island comprising mostly mountains in the northern portions and along the shore, and encompassing a great plain of an oblong shape in the south “extending in one direction three thousand stadia (about 555 km), but across the center inland it was two thousand stadia (about 370 km).” Fifty stadia (9 km) from the coast was a mountain that was low on all sides…broke it off all round about… the central island itself was five stades in diameter (about 0.92 km).

In Plato’s myth, Poseidon fell in love with Cleito, the daughter of Evenor and Leucippe, who bore him five pairs of male twins. The eldest of these, Atlas, was made rightful king of the entire island and the ocean (called the Atlantic Ocean in his honor), and was given the mountain of his birth and the surrounding area as his fiefdom. Atlas’s twin Gadeirus, or Eumelus in Greek, was given the extremity of the island towards the pillars of Hercules. The other four pairs of twins—Ampheres and Evaemon, Mneseus and Autochthon, Elasippus and Mestor, and Azaes and Diaprepes—were also given “rule over many men, and a large territory.”

Poseidon carved the mountain where his love dwelt into a palace and enclosed it with three circular moats of increasing width, varying from one to three stadia and separated by rings of land proportional in size. The Atlanteans then built bridges northward from the mountain, making a route to the rest of the island. They dug a great canal to the sea, and alongside the bridges carved tunnels into the rings of rock so that ships could pass into the city around the mountain; they carved docks from the rock walls of the moats. Every passage to the city was guarded by gates and towers, and a wall surrounded each of the city’s rings. The walls were constructed of red, white and black rock quarried from the moats, and were covered with brass, tin and the precious metal orichalcum, respectively.

According to Critias, 9,000 years before his lifetime a war took place between those outside the Pillars of Hercules at the Strait of Gibraltar and those who dwelt within them. The Atlanteans had conquered the parts of Libya within the Pillars of Hercules as far as Egypt and the European continent as far as Tyrrhenia, and subjected its people to slavery. The Athenians led an alliance of resistors against the Atlantean empire, and as the alliance disintegrated, prevailed alone against the empire, liberating the occupied lands.

“But at a later time there occurred portentous earthquakes and floods, and one grievous day and night befell them, when the whole body of your warriors was swallowed up by the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner was swallowed up by the sea and vanished; wherefore also the ocean at that spot has now become impassable and unsearchable, being blocked up by the shoal mud which the island created as it settled down.”

Johann Sebastian Bach



Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach (March 21, 1685-July 28, 1750) was a German Baroque composer. He was one of the greatest composers of all time, but during his lifetime, he was little-known and was mostly recognized for performing on the organ. Bach composed in many established musical forms, including, for example, the cantata and fugue, and developed them into complex and sublime pieces. He composed over 1,100 works in almost every musical genre (except opera).

Bach was born and died in Germany, and spent his entire life there, working as an organist, teacher, and composer. He had over 20 children, including four who became famous musicians in their own right, including Carl Philipp Emanuel, Wilhelm Friedemann, Johann Christoph Friedrich, and Johann Christian.

Bach was the youngest of eight children. His father, Johann Ambrosius Bach, had been a town musician, and probably gave Bach his early music lessons. His mother, Maria Elisabetha, and his father died within a year of each other (in 1694 and 1695, respectively). Orphaned at age 10, Bach moved in with his an older brother, Johann Christoph, who was the organist at St. Michael’s Church, Ohrdruf. This brother probably taught Bach much about the organ.

Bach’s early career involved playing the violin and organ at a low-level position in the ruling court in Weimar and in Neukirche, Arnstadt, beginning in 1703.

In October 1707, Bach married his cousin Maria Barbara Bach; together they would eventually have seven children (including Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach).

In 1708, Bach was appointed organist and chamber musician to the Duke of Saxe-Weimar. During the next nine years Bach composed many of his finest organ compositions, and became known as a fine organist.

During this period, Bach’s major works included Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (1705), Cantata No. 208 (1713), and The Little Organ Book (1714).

In 1717, Bach became Kapellmeister (the chapel master, who directed and/or composed music for a church or chapel) in the court of the music-lover Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cothen.

During this period, Bach’s major works included the Brandenburg Concertos (1721), The Well-Tempered Clavier (first book, 1722). In 1721, the Prince married a woman who did not share the Prince’s interest in music, and the Prince’s support of Bach lessened. Bach would soon leave.

Bach’s wife Maria had died in 1720. In 1721, he married Anna Magdalena Wilcke (the daughter of the town trumpeter); they would have 13 children together (including Johann Christian Bach). Altogether, Bach had 20 children with his two wives, but 10 of his children died in infancy. Four went on to become well-known composers and musicians.

Bach left Anhalt-Cothen in 1723 for Leipzig. He became Kantor (teacher and director of music) of St. Thomas’s in Leipzig. Bach remained in Leipzig for the rest of his life.

During this period, Bach’s major works included St. John Passion (1723), St. Matthew Passion (1727), Suite No. 3 in D (1729), Magnificat in D Major (1731), Christmas Oratorio (1734), Italian Concerto (1735), Goldberg Variations (1741-1742, originally called “Aria With Diverse Variations,” but later nicknamed after Bach’s student Johann Gottlieb Goldberg), The Well-Tempered Clavier (second book, 1742), the Musical Offering (1747), and The Art of the Fugue (unfinished, 1749).

By 1740, Bach’s eyesight was failing. Two eye operations resulted in Bach’s complete blindness; these operations also damaged his health and may have hastened his death. He died of a stroke on July 28, 1750. Bach is buried at St. John’s cemetery, Leipzig. Bach’s widow Anna lived for another ten years, dying in poverty in 1760. Bach’s death in 1750 marked the end of the Baroque period in music.

Bach’s works were soon forgotten (but then again, they were hardly known during his lifetime – many of his works were not published until a century after his death). In March, 1829 (almost 100 years after Bach’s death), the composer Felix Mendelssohn performed Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, spurring a world-wide interest in Bach. Soon, Bach’s works were appreciated by the world – essentially for the first time.

James Cook

James Cook

James Cook was born on 27 October 1728 in a small village near Middlesbrough in Yorkshire. His father was a farm worker. At the age of 17, Cook moved to the coast, settling in Whitby and finding work with a coal merchant. In 1755, Cook enlisted in the Royal Navy, serving in North America where he learnt to survey and chart coastal waters.

In 1769, the planet Venus was due to pass in front of the Sun, a rare event visible only in the southern hemisphere. The British government decided to send an expedition to observe the phenomenon. A more secret motive was to search for the fabled southern continent. Cook was chosen as commander of the Whitby-built HMS Endeavour. Those on board included astronomer Charles Green and botanist Joseph Banks.

Endeavour arrived in Tahiti in April 1769 where Green was able to observe the transit of Venus. Endeavour continued on to New Zealand, and then sailed along the length of Australia’s eastern coast, which had never before been seen by Europeans. Cook claimed it for Britain and named it New South Wales. Cook and his crew then returned home, arriving in July 1771.

In 1772, not satisfied by his previous exploits, Cook set out on a second voyage to look for the southern continent. His two ships sailed close to the Antarctic coast but were forced to turn back by the cold. They then visited New Zealand and Tahiti, returning to England in 1775.

Cook’s third voyage was to find the North-West Passage that was believed to link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Unable to find the fabled route, Cook took his two ships south and explored the island of Hawaii. Relations with the islanders were soured after the theft of a ship’s boat. On 14 February Cook tried to take the local leader hostage. There was a scuffle and Cook was stabbed and killed.