Martyr of Science

I wrote this introduction to David Brewster’s collected biography of Galileo, Tycho Brahe and Kepler, Martyrs of Science (1841), some time ago when there was a plan to republish it as part of a collected edition of popular 19th-century works on science and history of science. This never worked out but, given my recent discussions on popular history of science writing, and current anxieties about financial support for science, now seems as good a time as any to give it an airing.

The title page of The Martyrs of Science, or the Lives of Galileo, Tycho Brahe, and Kepler announces the author as “Sir David Brewster, K.H., D.C.L., Principal of the United College of St Salvator and St Leonard, St Andrews; Fellow of the Royal Society of London; Vice-President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh; Corresponding Member of the Institute of France; and Member of the Academies of St Petersburg, Stockholm, Berlin, Copenhagen, Göttingen, Philadelphia, &c. &c.” This list reminded readers of the eminence of the sixty-year-old author, but belies the fact that for most of his career he had struggled to make a living. Certainly, he was prominent within the nation’s scientific societies for his research in experimental optics but he would have been most familiar to readers as the inventor of the kaleidoscope – from which he failed to profit – and for his exertions in the world of publishing – which was his chief source of income for much of his career. Brewster had been editor of and a prolific contributor to encyclopaedias and periodicals, as well as being author of several scientific and historical monographs. John Murray, the publisher of Martyrs, had issued his 1831 Life of Sir Isaac Newton as part of the ‘Family Library’, a low-priced series “written by the best-known authors of the day”.1 Although the series as a whole was not financially successful, Newton went through numerous editions. Martyrs of Science, a slim duodecimo containing the biographies of three 17th-century astronomers, would have been an attractive proposition for a publisher but Brewster decided to take on the risks, or potential rewards, himself. It was a gamble worth taking: in the first year he made over £150 and new editions were regularly issued in the following years.

Brewster frequently complained that the literary work from which he made a living was a distraction from scientific research. His situation changed with his 1838 appointment as a Principal at St Andrews University, after which the pecuniary rewards of writing, although still welcome, were no longer such a significant lure. However, with Martyrs, which reused research and themes which Brewster had treated elsewhere, there were other motivations at play. This is emphasised by the fact that the science of Kepler and Galileo had, in fact, recently received ample treatment in affordable ‘Library of Useful Knowledge’ tracts by John Drinkwater, works which Brewster used and acknowledged. In other words, his aim in writing was not so much to introduce readers to the principles of astronomy or the details of its history, but to make use of the polemical value of these stories.

As several commentators have noted, Martyrs of Science contains no martyrs, although it does involve “the presence of one sort of martyrdom and the absence of another”.2 Present is the suffering endured when governments and monarchs failed to support science’s practitioners. Brewster obviously identified with such martyrs, and the book’s title had “excited much pleasantry” and “raillery” from family members, who suspected that he saw himself as a fourth martyr.3 His belief that men of science, past and present, suffered from ‘neglect’ was first expressed in his review of Charles Babbage’s Reflections on the Decline of Science in England (London, 1830). Brewster agreed that, relative to Continental Europe, Britain’s science was declining because of a lack of scientific education and government support. He contrasted the well-patronised Galileo, Tycho and Kepler with the ‘neglected’ scientific practitioners of contemporary Britain. However Brewster noted that even Kepler, whose pension was continually in arrears, was forced seek other sources of income. Such impediments to science form the core of Martyrs. Each instance of money delayed, each salary that was insufficient without the additional burden of teaching, and each distraction from the protagonists’ nobler labours was noted. For Brewster sympathy was a duty: he criticised William Whewell’s History of the Inductive Sciences (London, 1837) because it “sheds no tear over the hunger and griefs of Kepler” and Galileo’s “persecution” provoked “no generous indignation”.4 Brewster hoped to inspire in his readers a passionate interest in the “condition and fortunes of those great men who have consecrated their genius to the intellectual advancement of their species”.5

The absent martyrdom is Galileo’s. In Brewster’s view Galileo courted martyrdom but, by his abjuration, denied science an important victory in the inevitable clash with the Catholic Church. Brewster, an Evangelical Presbyterian, was remarkably critical of Galileo’s behaviour and remarkably understanding of the actions of the Inquisition and the Pope. He maintained this position, even after the publication of new research and interpretations. Returning to the subject 20 years later, in a dispute with another expert on optics, Jean-Baptiste Biot, over the cause of Galileo’s downfall, Brewster concluded that “Religion is never less divine than when virulent passion has been the impulse, and human ends the achievement; and science can never be honoured when its representative abjures the truths with which God has inspired him, and casts away the crown of martyrdom in his grasp”.6

The ‘Life of Galileo’ opens with the statement that this story has “a peculiar interest to the general reader” because “the triumphs and the reverses of his eventful life must be claimed for our common nature, as a source of more than ordinary instruction”. Galileo’s was, to some extent, a cautionary tale, but Martyrs was intended to inspire: his view, as stated by Thomas Galloway in the Edinburgh Review, was that the “applause of future ages is the best and most honourable incentive to scientific enterprise”. Brewster’s dedication to Lord Gray, a Scottish Representative Peer, suggests that this message was for potential patrons as much as discoverers: fund science and posterity will thank you. Certainly, there was little practical advice for students of science and no suggestion that hard work leads with any certainty to success. If anything Brewster’s message was the opposite: as in his Life of Newton and his later, and much more thoroughly researched, Memoirs of the Life, Writings and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton (Edinburgh, 1855), Brewster used the examples of Galileo and Kepler to deny the importance of dogged, Baconian graft. Some individuals, he suggested, had a particular genius that had to be nurtured by their nation. This book, therefore, earned its place in the market as a popular account of three eventful, and inimitable, lives but, for Brewster at least, it also spoke to deep concerns about contemporary science.


1. Samuel Smiles, A Publisher and his Friends: Memoir and Correspondence of John Murray, with an Account of the Origin and Progress of the House, 1768-1843, ed. Thomas Mackay, (London: John Murray, 1911), p. 301

2. J.R.R. Christie, ‘Sir David Brewster as an historian of science’, in A.D. Morrison-Low and J.R.R. Christie (eds), ‘Martyr of Science’: Sir David Brewster 1781-1868, (Edinburgh: Royal Scottish Museum, 1984), pp. 53-56, p. 53.

3. M.M. Gordon, The Home Life of Sir David Brewster, (Edinburgh: Edmonston & Douglas, 1869), p. 167.

4. [David Brewster], ‘Whewell’s History of the Inductive Sciences’, Edinburgh Review 66 (1837): 110-151, p. 150.

5 and 6. [David Brewster], ‘The martyrdom of Galileo’, North British Review 33 (1860): 513-48, p. 548.

About Rebekah Higgitt

Rebekah Higgitt completed a PhD in the history of science at Imperial College London in 2004 and did postdoctoral research at the University of Edinburgh. She was Curator of History of Science and Technology at the National Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory, Greenwich between 2008 and 2013 and is now a senior lecturer in the School of History at the University of Kent. Her research and publications have mainly focused on scientific institutions, scientific biography, history of science and the relationship between science, government and the public in 19th-century Britain. She became Principal Curator of Science at National Museums Scotland in August 2020 and is currently also Acting Keeper of Science & Technology.
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14 Responses to Martyr of Science

  1. Beto Pimentel says:

    Hi Rebekah,
    Very interesting post. It called my attention the fact that Brewster and Biot had such a degree of interlocution. As part of my Ph. D. research involves the early nineteenth century debates about the nature of light that eventually led to the establishment of the wave theory of light, I would be interested in any possible references about the exchange of ideas among the optical community in the period that you could indicate to me.
    Thank you in advance for any help in the matter,
    Beto Pimentel
    Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro

    • Rebekah Higgitt says:

      Hi Beto – thanks for your comments. As I’m sure you know, Maurice Finocchiaro has written about the Brewster/Biot disagreements about Galileo in his Retrying Galileo. My book, Recreating Newton points out that during the debates on the nature of light, Newton’s reputation was claimed by both sides. Biot, who felt his own views were under attack from wave theorists, presented Newton as a consistent advocate of the corpuscular theory. Biot’s biography of Newton was translated for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, founded by Henry Brougham, another die-hard supporter of the corpuscular theory, who worked with Brewster to come up with experiments that would challenge the growing consensus around the wave theory. My references included Geoffrey Cantor’s Optics after Newton, as well as some relevant correspondence, for the British context at least. Biot and Brewster agreed on using Newton as a prop to the corpuscular theory of light, but disagreed vehemently on the nature of his genius, his possible madness and the role that religion played in his life and work.

      I hope that’s some help.

      • Beto Pimentel says:

        Hi Rebekah,
        That’s A LOT of help, thanks.
        I am sorry to disappoint you, but I have only barely heard about Finnochiaro’s book (which I will promptly order, together with yours, if possible).
        My research tends to drive me much more into an internalist point of view (which I personnally do not mind in principle), so having inputs about what was going around in terms of the kind of stuff you just pointed out is really good. To be more clear about it, my research is about the role of interferometry in the optics and in the science in general of the XIXth century. As you mentioned Brougham and the use of Newton to legitimize as scientific valid whatever one could come up withit reminded me of Young’s ostracized (is that right to say so?) ideas about the wave nature of light and Brougham detraction of them in the Edinburgh Review (was it the name of the magazine?). Do you happen to know of any experiments Brougham or Brewster might have come up with regarding the explanation of interference phenomena in terms of emission theory of light?
        I should add you have already a faithful sequitum of young students of history of science here in Rio in the graduate program I take part, who follow your site with interest.
        All the best and thanks again,

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  3. Rebekah Higgitt says:

    Brougham’s account of Young’s ideas was in the Edinburgh Review in 1803. I’m afraid I don’t know much about the experiments that Brougham and Brewster collaborated on in the 1850s, beyond the fact that they were designed to demonstrate effects that were problematic for the wave theory. The best source to look at is Xiang Chen and Peter Barker (1992) ‘Cognitive appraisal and power: David Brewster, Henry Brougham, and the tactics of the emission-undulatory controversy during the early 1850s, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 23: 75-101. One paper, at least, was published by Brougham in Philosophical Transactions in 1850, ‘Experiments and observations upon the properties of light’, which is available on Jstor.

    Do let me know if you are presenting or publishing any of your research: it’s a fascinating topic.

    • Beto Pimentel says:

      Hi Rebekah!
      I feel really flattered to have such a generous attention as yours. Thanks again for pointing me toward interesting references and for sharing that you find the topic fascinating. Of course I do too, but as not many people around here research European optics in the XIXth century, I hope you will allow me to express how relieving and exciting it is to find someone who can appreciate it.
      I already downloaded the pdf of the SHPS 23: 75-101 and will check if we still have access to JSTOR to try and get the Phil. Trans. 1850.
      I would be (pleasantly) surprised if their experiments involved any interferometric setups, for this was something pretty much decided as an unnattackable fortress of the wave theory. So I would bet they would have something to do with polarization instead. As far as in 1868 the Académie was promoting prized competitions for experimental works to decide about the direction of the motion of the aether in polarized light – which, incidentally (go figure!), triggered stellar interferometry, through a very winding way.

      Last year I presented part of my research (the part that has to do with Fizeau aether drag experiment read in 1851 and two of its repetitions) in the XXIII International Conference on the History of Science and Technology, in Budapest (could perhaps send you the pdf of the presentation, if you think it may be interesting), and also other parts in smaller, more local congresses here in Brazil. However, writing the thesis and taking care of my 5 and half year old son has been preventing me from writing an article about it. I even promised something to Studium magazine in Holland (one of the repetitions was Zeeman’s, which may have interested them), but so far have been unable to really sit down and do it. I did publish in our national popular science magazine (Ciência Hoje/Science Today) a small article about the birth of stellar interferometry and the first direct measurement of the size of a star (1921), but it is of course in Portuguese.

      Thanks again,
      and cheers

      • Beto Pimentel says:

        Oops, actually what was downloaded was only the reference. Chen’s article is too far back to be available online in pdf through my university’s subscription. However, I found out the nearby Brazilian Centre for Research in Physics has the volume and I will go there this Thursday. Very convenient.

      • Beto Pimentel says:

        Also I forgot to add that this November I will be presenting a summary of the points of my thesis on a poster at the HSS Annual Meeting in Montréal. Would you be there by any chance?

      • Rebekah Higgitt says:

        Glad you can get hold of the article despite its not being available online. Unfortunately I won’t be at Montreal. I’d be glad to see the PDF of your presentation if you have it easily available. My email is rebekah dot higgitt at gmail dot com. My technical knowledge of the issues is not great (I am definitely an externalist rather than an internalist) but I am sure that it will do me good!

      • Beto Pimentel says:

        Thanks, Rebekah. I already sent you the PDF, plus a draft that I once intended to become an article on the issue – I hope it will help you go through the slides and understand what I was trying to say in each of them.
        About internalism and externalism, isn’t there some ‘complementarity law’ relating them? There should be. 😉

      • Rebekah Higgitt says:

        I received the PDF & document. Sorry not to respond yet (I’m very busy at the moment).

        As you say, it would be ideal if our accounts can be informed by both knowledge of both internalist and externalist approaches, even if one or the other is foregrounded in the final presentation.

  4. Will Thomas says:

    I’m sure I’m stating the obvious to the principals of this conversation, but for anyone following along who doesn’t know it, Jed Buchwald’s book Rise of the Wave Theory of Light is a must-consult for anyone addressing this topic. If I recall properly, it has an interesting perspective on Brewster as someone who did not see why Fresnel’s theory was not translatable into a particle interpretation. He also makes a good case that even those who insisted on the power of the wave interpretation did not fully articulate the novelty and power of their methods, which were hidden in the structure of their mathematical descriptions of polarization phenomena.

    • Beto Pimentel says:

      Hi Will,
      Thanks for the input as well. Coincidentally, I am CURRENTLY reading Jed Buchwald’s book. Indeed it is a must. And, yes, apparently his point is that the shallow and commonly quoted opposition between emissionists and undulatorists hide (even for the protagonists of the debate) a deeper issue about the understandig of what a ray of light meant in each case (left alone the differences among different versions of emission and undulatory theories, especially if you look back into the XVIIIth century). The book seems to build mainly on the problems raised by the necessity of explaining polarization phenomena, though. It barely touches the issues related to a (then) less pungent matter: the phenomemon of interference, upon which Young, Fresnel, Arago and others created many interesting experimental setups, with different goals in mind, that (in my opinion, and sustain it is the purpose of my thesis) played a significant role both in the establishment and triumph of the wave theory of light over the emission theory and in the development of Physics and sister disciplines along the XIXth century (and from there on, of course).
      Again, it was an excellent call – even if I was already aware of it. Please keep stating the obvious any time you feel like. Most of the times what may appear an obvious, basic reference might be something I simply left pass or for some cultural or geographical reason did not have previous information.
      All the best!

  5. Philip Bradfield says:

    Dr Higgitt
    I am preparing a lecture/demo on Brewster’s “simple 2-mirror kaleidoscope”

    i have managed to resolve the “ambiguity” that occurs whenever the dihedral angle is anything other than an even aliquot of 360 deg.,and derived a comprehensive illustrativeanalysis
    When i have my final draft/post-lecture version, I can send you my PP file.
    You might have an interest in / comments on my treatment of the “classic” topic

    I did post-grad research at Edinburgh (after Trinity College and the Cavendish Lab., Cambridge)


    Philip Bradfield
    Dunfermline, Fife

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