Here is my latest entry on the Transit of Venus blog
On 19 December 1760, a furious Mikhail Lomonosov made his way to the headquarters of the Imperial Academy of Science – he was at war with his German colleague Franz Aepinus. Lomonosov was a brilliant scientist but also feared for his explosive temperament. His colleagues, the poet Aleksandr Pushkin later wrote, ‘dared not utter a word in his presence’. Not a man who bowed to polite etiquette, the battles he had waged against his fellow academicians were so violent that Lomonosov had once even been put under house arrest for eight months after a drunken brawl ended in a stabbing.
In October Aepinus had published an essay about the transit of Venus, which Lomonosov thought simplified the astronomical principles to such an extent that it was plainly wrong. The argument had grown into a full-blown dispute, with Lomonosov composing his own essay about the transit in response as well as writing letters of complaint to his fellow academicians.
Aepinus retorted that Lomonosov was spreading ‘false rumours throughout the city’. In vain he hoped that this would end the battle. But Lomonosov was only just beginning. As he stood up in the Academy on 19 December, he had his attack carefully prepared. Page after page, neatly laying out his arguments, Lomonosov set out to prove his point. With pernickety detail, Lomonosov picked apart the scientific content of the essay, concluding that he was right and Aepinus wrong. Aepinus’s scheme, Lomonosov told his fellow academicians was ‘flawed’. It wasn’t even clear who Aepinus was writing for, Lomonosov insisted: the ‘rude and uncultured mass’ would never understand the essay while the intelligence of noblemen and those here assembled was ‘insulted’ by the plain text.
Aepinus had used the academicians who ‘hate me’, Lomonosov told the meeting, to incite even more disputes. Before Aepinus continued with his ‘wanton quarrels’, the angry Russian growled, he should bear in mind Lomonosov’s ‘services to his country’ and not treat him like an amateur. The finale of the speech was a sharp warning – Aepinus should never forget that at any given time his so-called supporters could also turn against him.
It was ridiculous. The two astronomers who should be working together in preparation for the transit were at loggerheads.