(NOT to be confused with the royal dynasty of the Ptolemys)

c.150 – Alexandria, Egypt

‘The Earth is at the centre of all the cosmos’

This erroneous belief dominated astronomy for 14 centuries.

‘The Earth does not rotate; it remains at the centre of things because this is its natural place – it has no tendency to go either one way or the other. Around it and in successively larger spheres revolve the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, all of them deriving their motion from the immense and outermost spheres of fixed stars’. Ptolemy wrote in the thirteen-volume Almagest (Arabic for ‘The Greatest’), in which he synthesised the work of his predecessors. It provided a definitive compilation of all that was known and accepted in the field of astronomy up to that point.

Almagest’s eminence, importance and influence can only be compared with Euclid’s Elements. A major part of Almagest deals with the mathematics of planetary motion. Ptolemy explained the wandering of the planets by a complicated system of cycles and epicycles. Starting from the Aristotelian notion that the earth was at the centre of the universe, with the stars and the planets rotating in perfect circles around it, the Ptolemaic system argued for a system of ‘deferents’, or large circles, rotating around the earth, and eighty epicycles, or small circles, which circulated within the deferents. He also examined theories of ‘movable eccentrics’. These proposed just one circle of rotation, with its centre slightly offset from the earth, as well as ‘equants’ – imaginary points in space that helped define the focal point of the rotation of the celestial bodies. Ptolemy’s texts were written with such authority that later generations struggled for a thousand years to convincingly challenge his theories and they remained the cornerstone of Western and Arab astronomy until the sixteenth century.

Ptolemy’s theory was challenged by COPERNICUS and demolished by KEPLER. Ptolemy supported Eratosthenes’ view that the Earth is spherical.

Ptolemy’s other major text is his Tetrabiblos, a founding work on the then science of astrology.

Despite that Ptolemy’s ideas of a geocentric universe have been shown to be erroneous by modern researchers it must be remembered that at the time the observable phenomena would support this view of the cosmos. Without a more informed understanding of the mechanisms involved it can appear that heavenly bodies do in fact move according to the Ptolemaeic model and mathematical evidence was available to provide verification and vindication.

 Medieval Astronomy from Melk Abbey Credit: Paul Beck (Univ. Vienna), Georg Zotti (Vienna Inst. Arch. Science) Copyright: Library of Melk Abbey, Frag. 229  Explanation: Discovered by accident, this manuscript page provides graphical insight to astronomy in medieval times, before the Renaissance and the influence of Nicolaus Copernicus, Tycho de Brahe, Johannes Kepler, and Galileo. The intriguing page is from lecture notes on astronomy compiled by the monk Magister Wolfgang de Styria before the year 1490 at Melk Abbey in Austria. The top panels clearly illustrate the necessary geometry for a lunar (left) and solar eclipse in the Earth-centered Ptolemaic system. At lower left is a diagram of the Ptolemaic view of the solar system and at the lower right is a chart to calculate the date of Easter Sunday in the Julian calendar. Text at the upper right explains the movement of the planets according to the Ptolemaic system. The actual manuscript page is on view at historic Melk Abbey as part of a special exhibition during the International Year of Astronomy.

Library of Melk Abbey, Frag. 229

Wikipedia-logo © (link to wikipedia)



Related sites
  • The Almagest (



Ideas on ‘impetus’ and the motion of the heavenly spheres.

Diversity of opinion on what keeps the heavenly orbs moving.

The recipe literature – craft manuals outlining recipes for manufacture of alchemical materials. For example, glass production had died out in the Latin West, but remained important in the Arab world.

ROGER BACON suggests that alchemical power can surpass nature (human artifice may exceed nature, i.e. technology), compared with Aristotle, who suggests that artifice may only mimic nature, or complete that which nature has failed to finish.

Suma Perfectionis’, Gaber – Latin Franciscan text (passed off as Arabic). Underpinned by the sulfur-mercury theory and by Aristotle’s ‘minima naturalia’ (smallest of natural things)– the idea of a minimum amount of matter to hold a form – hence a smallest particle of any given substance. This differs from atomism but the ideas were not developed by Aristotle.

Thus, in the middle ages came the belief that metals are created by the coalescence of minima of the metals.
Particles may be tightly or lightly packed (density). Matter may be contaminated.
Noble metals (gold) are tightly packed small particles, unaffected by fire or corrosion.
Lead turns to powder (oxidised) in fire as it is composed of larger, less tightly packed particles.
Sublimation is explained by smaller, lighter particles being driven upward by fire, and so on.


Texts become more secret, written in code and disguised. Latin texts are written in such a style so as to appear to be derived from ARABIC.

1317 – The Pope outlaws transmutation.

Moral questions: ‘is alchemical gold as valuable as real gold?’

Quintessences’: the refined essences of metals.

The discovery that lead cannot be turned to gold has important consequences. It is a strong indication that some substances are truly permanent and indestructible.



bust said to depict a likeness of Socrates

The speculative Greek philosophers, considering the great overarching principles that controlled the Cosmos, were handicapped by a reluctance to test their speculations by experimentation.
At the other end of the spectrum were the craftsmen who fired and glazed pottery, who forged weapons out of bronze and iron. They in turn were hindered by their reluctance to speculate about the principles that governed their craft.

WESTERN SCIENCE is often credited with discoveries and inventions that have been observed in other cultures in earlier centuries.
This can be due to a lack of reliable records, difficulty in discerning fact from legend, problems in pinning down a finding to an individual or group or simple ignorance.

The Romans were technologists and made little contribution to pure science and then from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance science regressed. Through this time, science and technology evolved independently and to a large extent one could have science without technology and technology without science.

Later, there developed a movement to ‘Christianise Platonism’ (Thierry of Chartres).

Platonism at its simplest is the study and debate of the various arguments put forward by the Greek philosopher PLATO (428/7-348/7 BCE).
The philosopher Plotinus is attributed with having founded neo-Platonism, linking Christian and Gnostic beliefs to debate various arguments within their doctrines. One strand of thought linked together three intellectual states of being: the Good (or the One), the Intelligence and the Soul. The neo-Platonic Academy in Greece was closed by the Emperor Justinian (CE 483-565) in CE 529.
During the early years of the Renaissance, texts on neo-platonism began to be reconsidered, translated and discoursed.

Aristotle’s four causes from the ‘Timaeus’ were attributed to the Christian God, who works through secondary causes (such as angels).

Efficient Cause – Creator – God the Father

Formal Cause – Secondary agent – God the Son

Material Cause – The four elements: earth, air, fire & water.
Because these four are only fundamental forms of the single type of matter, they cannot be related to any idea of ‘elements’ as understood by modern science – they could be transmuted into each other. Different substances, although composed of matter would have different properties due to the differing amounts of the qualities of form and spirit. Thus a lump of lead is made of the same type of matter (fundamental form) as a lump of gold, but has a different aggregation of constituents. Neither lead nor gold would contain much spirit – not as much as air, say, and certainly not as much as God, who is purely spiritual. ( ALCHEMY )

Final Cause – Holy Spirit

All other is ‘natural’ – underwritten by God in maintaining the laws of nature without recourse to the supernatural.
Science was the method for investigating the world. It involved carrying out careful experiments, with nature as the ultimate arbiter of which theories were right and which were wrong.

Robert Grosseteste (1168-1253) Bishop of Lincoln (Robert ‘Bighead’) – neo-platonic reading of Genesis – emanation of God’s goodness, like light, begins creation. Light is thus a vehicle of creation and likewise knowledge (hence ‘illumination’), a dimensionless point of matter with a dimensionless point of light superimposed upon it (dimensions are created by God). Spherical radiation of light carries matter with it until it is dissipated. Led to studies of optical phenomena (rainbow, refraction, reflection).

stained glass window depicting Robert Grosseteste (created 1896)

Wikipedia-logo © (link to wikipedia)


ALBERTUS MAGNUS (c.1200- 80)

Graf von Bollstaadt – ‘The Universal Doctor’

Middle ages – Europe

‘The study of the natural world leads to a glorification of God’

portrait of Albertus Magnus


Bavarian philosopher, theologian and alchemist.
Wrote a paraphrase on ARISTOTLE and the Arabic comments on it. Responsible for a revival in Aristotelian thought.

Albert of Cologne was the eldest son of the Count of Bollsaadt. He studied in Padua and Paris, taught in Cologne and became a Dominican monk in 1223. He was made Bishop of Regensberg in 1260 but resigned two years later and spent the rest of his life teaching in Bavaria and the surrounding districts.
He died in 1280, was beatified in 1622, canonized as St. Albert the Great in 1931, and in 1941 was declared patron saint of all who cultivate the natural sciences.
His fame is due in part to the fact that he was the forerunner, guide and teacher of St.Thomas Aquinas; but Albert of Cologne was known as Albertus Magnus even in his own lifetime because of his prolific scientific writings and his great influence on the study of philosophy and theology.
His encyclopaedic compilation of all knowledge as understood at the time included his works Physica; Summa theologiae and De natura locorum and contained scientific treatises on alchemy, astronomy, mathematics, physiology, geography, economics, logic, rhetoric, ethics, politics, phrenology, metaphysics and all branches of natural science.

detail from a portrait of ALBERTUS MAGNUS ©

Wrote on three realms of nature, De Animalibus, De Vegetablibus & De Mineralibus.
Concluded that fossils were phenomena or ‘games of nature’. Compiled a list of Aristotle’s errors.

Wikipedia-logo © (link to wikipedia)


ROGER BACON (1214- 94)

(Doctor Mirabilis) ‘The Marvelous Doctor’

(Franciscan friar) Oxford – 1257

‘Mathematics (The first of the sciences, the alphabet of philosophy, door & key to the sciences), not Logic, should be the basis of all study’

Converted from Aristotelian to a neo-Platonist.

Etching of ROGER BACON Franciscan friar (1214- 94)


The Multiplication of Species; the means of causation (change) radiate from one object to another like the propagation of light.

‘An agent directs its effect to making the recipient similar to itself because the recipient is always potentially what the agent is in actuality.’

Thus heat radiating from a fire causes water placed near the fire,
but not in it, to become like the fire (hot). The quality of fire is multiplied in the water (multiplication of species).

All change may be analysed mathematically. Every multiplication is according to line, angles or figures. This thinking comes from the ninth century al-Kinde and his thoughts on rays and leads to a mathematical investigation into light.

Fear of the Mongols, Muslims and the Anti-Christ motivated the Franciscans. Franciscan neo-Platonism was based on Augustinian thought with a mathematical, Pythagorean, approach to nature. Bacon subscribed to this apocalyptical view, suffered trial and was imprisoned.
The Dominicans chose Aristotle – with a qualitative, non-mathematical approach to the world.

Wikipedia-logo © (link to wikipedia)



(Doctor Angelicus, Doctor Communis, Doctor Universalis)

St Thomas Aquinas


‘A theological need to explain a cause becomes the basis for a specific scientific explanation of the world’

Established by Christians and Muslims in order to confound the dualist philosophies coming out of Persia.

Thomas Aquinas was a Dominican priest, theologian, and philosopher. Called the Doctor Angelicus (the Angelic Doctor,) Aquinas is considered one the greatest Christian philosophers to have ever lived. Two of his most famous works, the Summa Theologiae and the Summa Contra Gentiles, are the finest examples of Christian philosophy.

Wikipedia-logo © (link to wikipedia)



Typographic resetting of Gutenberg's 42-line bible of 1452-55, using modern Fraktur and decorative initial in METAFONT by Yannis Haralambous. (Beginning of St. John's Gospel) from a LaTex advertising flyer.

1450 – Mainz, Germany

‘Movable type’


Hand-held block printing – a laborious process of carving whole pages of fixed text out of wooden slabs and reproducing copies using dies – had been used for many decades before the German inventor appeared. What Gutenberg mastered was the idea of placing individual metal letters – (his family background was in minting and metalworking, an ideal foundation for his training as an engraver and goldsmith. His skills enabled him to craft the first individual metal letter moulds) – into temporary mounts, which could then be dismantled or ‘moved’ once a page of text had been completed and reused to produce other pages.

In comparison to engraving and the single use of wooden blocks, the theoretically infinite number of sides which could be made out of a set of metal characters, together with the speed at which a template could be created, revolutionised printing and the spread of the printed word.

engraving of Johannes Gutenberg

Gutenberg printing press. Johannes Gutenberg (c. 13951468) invented the printing press sometime in the mid-fifteenth century. The moveable printing blocks it employed made it far simpler to operate than the complicated machinery of the Far East

Some sources credit the Chinese with inventing moveable type printing, using characters made of wood. What is notable is the quality of Gutenberg’s metal casts and press – they are almost as important as the idea of moveable type itself.

By the end of the fifteenth century tens of thousands of books and pamphlets were already in existence, giving academics the opportunity to share scientific knowledge widely and cheaply.

Wikipedia-logo © (link to wikipedia)


PARACELSUS (1493-1541)

Europe – early sixteenth century

‘Added salt to the mercury/sulfur diad, making a trinity to match the holy trinity’

picture of philippus aureolus theophrastus_paracelsus


Elaborating his writings with occult mystery, Theophrastus von Hohenheim renamed himself Paracelsus and helped to reform medicine by making it chemical.
Many of his ideas were erroneous and his writings were deliberately obscure; he insisted that the ‘doctrine of signatures’ could reveal efficacious drugs for different organs. Proclaiming that specific therapies could counter a particular disease was a radically different approach to the Aristotelian attempts to rebalance an individual’s internal humors.

Paracelsus extended the ‘fundamental qualities’ of the four Aristotelian elements by adding a third ‘hydrostatic principle’ to the diad of J’BIR IHBIN AYAM – saying the material manifestation of the ancient elements ( ‘…everything that lies in the four elements’ ) may be reduced to mercury, sulfur and salt.

The first distillate of an organic substance would be the thin, volatile ‘mercury’, which acted in favour of youth and life while next came the ‘sulfur’, acting in favour of growth and increase. Finally, the dry mass left behind was the ‘salt’. The concept of these three principles was considered a slight advance upon that of the four elements.

These are not the same things as we recognize today, nor elements in their own right; the first two were components of metals, salt was a principle common to all living things.

The Royal physicians of Elizabeth I of England and Henry IV of France assimilated and adapted Paracelsus’s ideas and although his theories lost credibility, his chemical remedies entered mainstream medicine.

Wikipedia-logo © (link to wikipedia)



TYCHO BRAHE (1546-1601)

1577 – Denmark

‘The heavens are changeable, and the comets move through space. The Earth is the centre of the Universe, and round it rotates the Moon and the Sun. The planets orbit the Sun’


Up to now it had been believed that planets were carried on ‘heavenly spheres’ that fit tightly around each other.

Brahe dissented from the Copernican doctrine and accepted the dogma that the Earth stood still. His real contribution to astronomy was as an observer, rather than as a theorist. He accurately measured the position of 777 stars, a remarkable achievement considering it was done without a telescope. He also measured the movement of planets, but was unable to determine their orbits.

His observations paved the way for the discoveries of his assistant, Kepler. After Brahe’s death Kepler inherited Brahe’s vast accumulation of data on planetary observations.

portrait of tycho brahe


Brahe’s observation of the supernova of 1572 and the comet of 1577 convinced him that the Universe was not unchangeable as was believed by philosophers of his time. The notion of celestial spheres was not possible because comets moved through these spheres. But he still placed the Earth at the centre of the Universe. His contemporary, the Italian philosopher GIORDANO BRUNO (1548-1600), believed in the Sun centered Copernican system and for these heretical beliefs was burned at the stake.

Wikipedia-logo © (link to wikipedia)




1600 – England

‘Gilbert’s principal area of study related to magnetism, however, his method of enquiry is equally significant’

portrait of WILLIAM GILBERT ©


Gilbert rejected the scholastics’ approach to science, preferring the experimental method, which he applied to the Earth’s magnetic properties.
He carried out some of the first systematic studies of the lodestone in Europe and showed that the Earth acts as a bar magnet with magnetic poles.

His celebrated text, ‘De magnete, magnetisque corporibus, et de magno magnete tellure‘ (On the Magnetic, Magnetic Bodies and the Great Magnet Earth – 1600) is considered to be one of the first truly scientific texts.
Gilbert received his medical training in Cambridge and practiced as a physician in London. He became president of the College of Physicians and was physician to Queen Elizabeth I.

In the time of Elizabeth I and Shakespeare, England was still largely a place of superstition and religious fervor. Gilbert concurred with Copernicus, a potentially dangerous sentiment in an era when elsewhere in Europe others such as Giordano Bruno and later GALILEO were being persecuted (and in the case of Bruno, executed) for sharing the same opinion.

Magnetism was to cast its influence in the eighteenth century, displayed through the electric fluid of GALVANI and VOLTA

He distinguished the properties of magnetism from the attractive effect produced by friction with amber. In so doing he introduced the term that was to become electricity.
He introduced a number of expressions to the English language including: magnetic pole, electric force and electric attraction.
A term of magneto motive force, the gilbert, is named after him.

Gilbert and others postulated that magnetism is the force holding the planets in their orbits.

Wikipedia-logo © (link to wikipedia)


FRANCIS BACON (1561-1626)

1620 – England

‘Scientific laws must be based on observations and experiments’

Bacon rejected ARISTOTLE‘s deductive or a priori, approach to reasoning and suggested his own, inductive, or a posteriori, approach. Bacon developed the scientific method – but he did not make any significant scientific discovery.

‘I shall content myself to awake better spirits like a bell-ringer, who is first up to call others to church’

Portrait of FRANCIS BACON ©


Bacon, a philosopher, advocated a new method of enquiry, completely different from the philosophical methods of the ancient Greeks, in his book Novum Organum – which has influenced scientists since its publication in 1620.

The text proposed the sentiment of ‘The Advancement of Learning’ (1605) signaling dissatisfaction with the limits of, and approaches to, knowledge to date and foresaw a future where the ancient masters would be far surpassed – Aristotle had written a text called Organum or ‘Logical Works’ and Bacon’s ‘new’ approach suggested an alternative direction to scientific study.

Bacon strongly criticised Aristotle’s deductive method of science, which involved formulating abstract ideas and ‘logically’ building upon them step-by-step to find ‘truths’, without thorough consideration of whether the theoretical foundation in itself was ever valid.

Rather than rely on superstition or accept unquestioningly the flawed solutions of the ancient academics as had largely been the case for two thousand years, Bacon’s alternative was to argue for ‘inductive’ reason, where the only ‘certain’ statements that should ever be made were based on observation and proof collected from the natural world. The essence of his method is to collect masses of data by observations and experiments, analyse facts by drawing up tables of negative, affirmative and variable instances of the phenomenon ( ‘Tables of Comparative Instances’ ), draw (induce) hypotheses from the evidence, then to collect further evidence to proceed towards a more general theory. The most important aspect of this method was the idea of drawing up tentative hypotheses from available data and then verifying them by further investigations.

‘A true and fruitful natural philosophy has a double scale or ladder ascendant or descendant, ascending from experiments to axioms and descending from axioms to the invention of new experiments’, he wrote in Novum Organum.

Bacon cautioned those trying to practice his new method, urging them to repudiate four kinds of intellectual idol

  • Perceptual Illusions – ‘idols of the tribe’

  • Personal biases – ‘idols of the cave’

  • Linguistic confusions – ‘idols of the market place’

  • Dogmatic philosophical systems – ‘idols of the theatre’


Wikipedia-logo © (link to wikipedia)



1684 – Germany

‘A new method for maxima and minima, as well as tangents … and a curious type of calculation’

Newton invented calculus (fluxions) as early as 1665, but did not publish his major work until 1687. The controversy continued for years, but it is now thought that each developed calculus independently.
Terminology and notation of calculus as we know it today is due to Leibniz. He also introduced many other mathematical symbols: the decimal point, the equals sign, the colon (:) for division and ratio, and the dot for multiplication.

Wikipedia-logo © (link to wikipedia)




1843 – Germany

‘The number of visible sunspots varies in a regular cycle that averages about 11 years’

image of the Sun from space

GALILEO was the first to study sunspots. Schwabe made careful records of sunspots almost daily for 17 years before announcing his theory. He continued his observations for another 25 years.

Wherever magnetic fields emerge from the Sun, they suppress the flow of surrounding hot gases, creating relatively cool regions that appear as dark patches in the Sun’s shallow outer layer, the photosphere.

Sunspots vary in size from 1000 to 40,000 kilometres across and may last from a few days to many months.

Near a solar minimum there are only a few sunspots. During a solar maximum, solar flares can produce dramatic changes in the emission of ultraviolet rays and X-rays from the Sun.

Hot plasma of several thousand degrees rises upwards from within the Sun, then cools down and sinks back into the depths. Where the strong magnetic fields hold the plasma, dark sunspots emerge.

Wikipedia-logo © (link to wikipedia)




NIELS BOHR (1885-1962)

1913 – Denmark

‘Electrons in atoms are restricted to certain orbits but they can move from one orbit to another’

Bohr’s was the first quantum model for the internal structure of the atom.

Bohr worked with RUTHERFORD in Manchester and improved upon Rutherford’s model, which said that electrons were free to orbit the nucleus at random.

Classical physics insisted that electrons moving around the nucleus would eventually expire and collapse into the nucleus as they radiated energy. Bohr resolved the issue surrounding Rutherford’s atomic structure by applying the concept of quantum physics set out by MAX PLANCK in 1900.
He suggested that the electrons would have to exist in one of a number of specific orbits, each being defined by specific levels of energy. From the perspective of quantum theory, electrons only existed in these fixed orbits where they did not radiate energy. The electrons could move to higher-level orbits if energy was added, or fall to lower ones if they gave out energy. The innermost orbit contains up to two electrons. The next may contain up to eight electrons. If an inner orbit is not full, an electron from an outer orbit can jump into it. Energy is released as light (a photon) when this happens. The energy that is released is a fixed amount, a quantum.

Quanta of radiation would only ever be emitted as an atom made the transition between states and released energy. Electrons could not exist in between these definite steps. This quantised theory of the electrons’ orbits had the benefits of explaining why atoms always emitted or absorbed specific frequencies of electromagnetic radiation and of providing an understanding of why atoms are stable.

Bohr calculated the amount of radiation emitted during these transitions using Planck’s constant. It fitted physical observations and made sense of the spectral lines of a hydrogen atom, observed when the electromagnetic radiation (caused by the vibrations of electrons) of the element was passed through a prism.
The prism breaks it up into spectral lines, which show the intensities and frequencies of the radiation – and therefore the energy emissions and absorptions of the electrons.

Each of the elements has an atomic number, starting with hydrogen, with an atomic number of one. The atomic number corresponds to the number of protons in the element’s atoms. Bohr had already shown that electrons inhabit fixed orbits around the nucleus of the atom.
Atoms strive to have a full outer shell (allowed orbit), which gives a stable structure. They may share, give away or receive extra electrons to achieve stability. The way that atoms will form bonds with others, and the ease with which they will do it, is determined by the configuration of electrons.
As elements are ordered in the periodic table by atomic number, it can be seen that their position in the table can be used to predict how they will react.

In addition to showing that electrons are restricted to orbits, Bohr’s model also suggested that

  • the orbit closest to the nucleus is lowest in energy, with successively higher energies for more distant orbits.
  • when an electron jumps to a lower orbit it emits a photon.
  • when an electron absorbs energy, it jumps to a higher orbit.

Bohr called the jump to another orbit a quantum leap.

Although it contained elements of quantum theory, the Bohr model had its flaws. It ignored the wave character of the electron. Work by WERNER KARL HEISENBERG later tackled these weaknesses.

Bohr’s theory of complementarity states that electrons may be both a wave and a particle, but that we can only experience them as one or the other at any given time. He showed that contradictory characteristics of an electron could be proved in separate experiments and none of the results can be accepted singly – we need to hold all the possibilities in mind at once. This requires a slight adjustment to the original model of atomic structure, we can no longer say that an electron occupies a particular orbit, but can only give the probability that it is there.

In 1939 he developed a theory of nuclear fission with Jon Archibald Wheeler (b.1911) and realised that the 235uranium isotope would be more susceptible to fission than the more commonly used 238uranium.
The element bohrium is named after him.

picture of the Nobel medal - link to