Today, a mathematical magician helps end magic. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
John Dee was born in England
in 1527. When he died in 1607, he left us all
wondering: was he a mathematician or a sorcerer?
Dee graduated from Cambridge at 18. He went on to
study and lecture in Europe, and his reputation
soared. He studied navigation with the same
Mercator who gave us the map projection. An
explorer later offered to give Dee Canada in
exchange for his knowledge of maps. Dee was expert
in astronomy, astrology, math, alchemy, and much
more. The Protestant rulers Edward and Elizabeth
consulted him. But so did Catholic Queen Mary.
The lines between astronomy, astrology, alchemy,
and magic were very fuzzy in Dee's time. Maybe we
saw our ignorance of nature's forces more clearly
then than we do now. Dee raised essential questions
about knowledge. Still, he looked for answers in a
magic crystal as well as in a chemical retort.
In 1570 he wrote a 50-page preface for the first
English translation of Euclid's geometry. It showed
how geometry fit into the whole of science. He
began with a huge chart -- a road map of human
knowledge. He resolved science into two parts.
"Arithmetike" and "geometrie" were primary. The
rest, he said, was derivative. Things like
"perspectiue, astronomie, cosmographie, astrologie,
and musike" all flowed from mathematics.
So Dee juggled arcane and rational knowledge. He
had a strange occult helper named Kelly who always
wore a skullcap. Dee didn't know that Kelly's ears
had been cut off as punishment for forgery. Kelly
read Dee's magic crystal for him.
Yet Dee's home was a well-equipped laboratory and
the finest scientific library in England. Queen
Elizabeth visited him there. She read his books and
sought advice on science. She also asked him for
astrological readings when a comet went by in 1577.
Dee died just as Galileo turned his new telescope
to the sky. After that the game of science changed
utterly. It'd been demystified. The world became a
machine we could dissect. Dee had asked if nature
reveals itself from outside the human psyche or
from within it. Religious reformers took that as
witchcraft. They brought him down, and he died in
Dee was not one of the great discoverers. He left
no seminal idea behind. But he organized math and
alchemy just before modern science changed the
rules. Dee set the stage for that change by putting
his lens on the whole of science.
A sad irony rang through Dee's life. For we swept
the old science away only after Dee's vision helped
expose its weaknesses. And in that strange sense,
Dee was as much a pioneer of modern science as
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Dictionary of National Biography. Vol.
V, (Leslie Stephen and Sydney Lee, eds.). London:
Smith, Elder, and Co., 1908-9, pp. 721-729.
Debus, A.G., John Dee: The Mathematicall
Praeface to the Elements of Geometrie of Euclid of
Megara. New York: Science History
Dee's famous Mathematicall Praeface
was first published in conjunction with the first
English edition of Euclid:
Dee, J., John Dee, His Mathematicall Praeface.
The Elements of Geometrie of the most
auncient Philosopher EVCLIDE of Megara
(transl. by H. Billingsley). Imprinted at London by
John Daye, 1570.
The Praeface was common intellectual
currency for a long time. But it wasn't reprinted
until seventy years later. Then it showed up in a
new edition of Euclid:
Dee, J. John Dee, His Mathematicall Praeface. In
Euclid's Elements of Geometry in IV
books: with a supplement of Divers Propositions and
Corollaries. To Which is Added a Treatise of
Regular Solids, by Campane and Flussas ... , (John
Leeke and George Serle) London: Printed by R. &
W. Leybourn for Richard Tomlins at the Sun and
Bible in Pie Corner, 1661. (Available in the Rare
Book Collection, University of Houston.)
I am grateful to Pat Bozeman, Head of Special
Collections, University of Houston Library, for
calling my attention to Dee's Praeface
and making the 1661 reprinting available to me.
For more on Dee, see Episodes 621 and 896.
Image courtesy of Special
Collections, UH Library
From the opening of John Dee's Mathematicall
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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