How Bad Is Pop History of Science?

Renaissance Mathematicus gives an example here.

The author of the piece critiqued -- which was published by Scientific American! -- puts forward nonsense like "Copernicus's system did not explain retrograde motion of the planets" -- when, in fact, the major advance of Copernicus's system was its natural explanation of retrograde motion! -- and that Galileo "discovered that Venus was a planet and not a star" -- something the ancient Greeks knew quite well.

I studied the history of science for a year at King's College in London. Pretty much the first thing our lecturer told us was that pop history of science was complete nonsense.

And note: although sometimes the junk pop history of science involves religious issues, nothing in the Scientific American piece has anything to do with such matters. It just seems that, concerning the history of science, lots of people who have no idea what they are talking about want to publish on the topic.


  1. Did the ancient Greeks know anything about what a star or a planet is? This is not a rhetorical question.

    Either way, it seems odd to say "discovered that Venus was a planet and not a star". I would've thought the trick would be to discover *what a planet is*, not whether Venus is one.

    1. Well, sure: they had detected the difference between the celestial objects that wander through the zodiac and those that don't! Without that advance, you don't get Copernicus at all.

      And nobody ever discovered "what a planet is": what has happened is a continual refinement of our ideas. E.g., see Pluto.