Person: Dee, John
John Dee was an English scholar who wrote on trigonometry, on calendar reform, on navigation, on geography and on astrology. He became astrologer to Queen Mary but was imprisoned for being a magician.
Mathematical Profile (Excerpt):
- Roland Dee dealt in textiles and, in addition, was a gentleman sewer at the court of Henry VIII.
- John was educated at a school in Chelmsford in Essex from 1535, then entered St. John's College, Cambridge in November of 1542.
- One would not expect a modern astronomer to say "observations of the heavenly influences" but Dee, in common with the general practice in his time, believed in astrology.
- However, Dee sought a scientific explanation for the reasons that the positions of the planets at the moment of a person's birth would affect their future.
- One could view this as an early form of the law of universal gravitation, but this might be somewhat overstating Dee's idea.
- However, Newton's concept of force certainly derived from concepts of magic powers such as those of Dee.
- We should stress, however, that Dee's approach was always through mathematics and he sought a scientific explanation.
- Dee graduated with a B.A. in 1546 and became a Fellow of St John's College.
- Being unhappy with the scientific attitude in England, Dee travelled on the Continent between 1548 to 1551.
- Soon Mercator became a particularly close friend of Dee's and together they discussed new models for the universe.
- During his time in Louvain Dee wrote two texts on astronomy.
- In the same year Dee went to Paris where he lectured on Euclid's Elements.
- In 1551 Dee was offered an appointment as professor of mathematics in Paris but declined.
- Back in England Dee entered the service of the Earl of Pembroke in February 1552, then he entered the service of the Duke of Northumberland near the end of the same year.
- On 28 May 1555 Dee was arrested and charged with "calculating".
- Although he was guilty of the charges brought against him, Dee was released in August after being held for three months.
- As to Dee's religious position this seems a little harder to ascertain.
- Dee presented plans for a national library to Queen Mary on 15 January 1556.
- The scheme did not receive official backing, but nevertheless Dee, despite his financial difficulties, set out to create his own library.
- Dee quickly found favour with Elizabeth and was even asked to use his astrological skills to select the most appropriate day for her coronation.
- During the next five years Dee spent time abroad collecting books for his library, and studying astronomy, astrology, mathematics, coding, and magic - all topics which were linked in his mind as he struggled to understand the ultimate truths about the universe.
- Elizabeth was impressed and Dee gave her mathematics lessons to enable her to understand it.
- Let us emphasise that we should not think any the less of Dee because of his interests in magic; most of the great scientists and mathematicians of his time, and much later, had such interests.
- For example Brahe firmly believed in alchemy and astrology as did Cavalieri and Kepler while Newton, like Dee, was obsessed with studying alchemy.
- Dee refers to earlier scientists who also claimed this fact.
- In 1570 Dee edited an edition of Euclid's Elements translated by Billingsley.
- Dee observed the "new star" which is often called "Tycho Brahe's supernova of 1572" and in the following year he wrote Parallacticae commentationis praxosque which gives trigonometric methods which were applied to find the distance to the new star.
- Certainly Brahe greatly admired Dee's contributions.
- Dee brought instruments of navigation back from the Continent when he returned in 1551.
- Dee prepared nautical information, including charts for navigation in the polar regions, for the company during the next 32 years.
- Edward Kelley entered Dee's life in March of 1582.
- Although this was not the first time Dee had been involved in such practices, at first he was still highly suspicious that Kelley's visions were real.
- Two things convinced him, however: Kelley was highly skilled in his art, and secondly Dee so longed to understand the ultimate truth about the universe which he had failed to find by other means.
- Dee became more and more deeply involved in conversing with angels and spirits through Kelley and, sadly, it dominated the latter part of his life.
- We note that in his diaries Dee refers to himself as Δ, a clever pun on the fact that Δ is the Greek character for the letter "dee" and also a magical symbol.
- Dee made a proposal to Queen Elizabeth for calendar reform in February 1583.
- It was, of course, exactly the right course of action and Dee's proposal gained support from several of Elizabeth's advisors.
- Dee's scheme was, however, a better one than that adopted across Europe after the proclamation by Pope Gregory XIII.
- The failure of Dee's calendar reform proposal would mean that England retained a calendar at odds with that in the rest of Europe until 1752.
- Dee and Kelley visited Poland and Bohemia (1583-89), giving displays of magic at the courts of princes.
- On the other hand Dee, still in severe financial problems, returned to Mortlake in December 1589 to discover that much of his library had been stolen, as were his scientific instruments.
- Around this time Dee must have become friendly with Thomas Harriot.
- In 1590 Harriot sent Dee a copy of one of his books in which he had written "To my dear friend".
- For a number of years Dee tried unsuccessfully to gain compensation for the income he had lost over the years.
- He tried to gain an appointment as Master of St John's Cross which was approved by Queen Elizabeth subject to approval by the Archbishop of Canterbury - but this approval never materialised.
Born 13 July 1527, Tower Ward, London, England. Died 26 March 1609, Mortlake, London, England.
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Tags relevant for this person:
Astronomy, Origin England
Adapted from other CC BY-SA 4.0 Sources:
- O’Connor, John J; Robertson, Edmund F: MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive