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.