Pedro Nunes (1502 - 1578)

Mathematics, Cosmography and Nautical Science in the 16th century.


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Pedro Nunes

(1502 – August 11, 1578)


Portuguese mathematician, cosmographer, as well as University professor. Not much is known about his family and early life. Most of the few known facts were reported by his grandchildren Matias Pereira and Pedro Nunes Pereira to the Inquisition, in the 1620’s.



Pedro Nunes was born in the region of Alcácer do Sal, Portugal. He started his graduate studies around 1517 at the University of Salamanca. In 1523 married a Spanish lady called D. Guiomar Áreas (or Aires). From this marriage two boys (Apolónio e Pedro) and four girls (Briolanja, Francisca, Isabel e Guimoar) were born. In this same year he was given a bachelor degree in medicine.





Nunes returned to Portugal in 1527. He joined court’s life and became tutor of Prince Luís (1506-1555), king João's brother. In this period, he established scientific contacts with Martim Afonso de Sousa (explorer and future Vice-Roy of India) and D. João de Castro (explorer, experimentalist and future Vice-Roy of India).

On November 16th 1529, he was appointed cosmographer. On December 4th started to teach at Lisbon's "Estudo Geral" (University) as a substitute teacher of Moral Philosophy. In January 15th 1530, Nunes was appointed to teach Logics. In 1531 he was still teaching Logics at the University but it seems that his classes were not very popular so, in April 4th, started to teach Metaphysics. In October became one of Prince Cardinal Henrique’s (king's brother and future king) teachers. These classes would last until 1534.


In the following year he took the Licentia exame at Lisbon's Cathedral (February 17th). Less than a week later (February 23rd) became doctor (PhD equivalent) and abandoned public teaching.

When, in 1537, the Portuguese University (then located in Lisbon) returned to Coimbra, he moved to the re-founded University of Coimbra to teach mathematics. He was appointed Mathematics Professor on October 16th, 1544. In 1555 was elected to take part in Coimbra University's statutes reformation. In 1557 he took a leave from the university and moved to Lisbon for a period of 4 years. He then retired from the University in 1562.



Scientific life


Nunes is considered one of the greatest mathematicians of his time and is best known for his contributions to the technical field of navigation. But his work spanned from pure mathematics to mechanics to cosmography to geography and to cartography. Nunes was also one of the last great commentators to Ptolemy, Aristotle or Sacrobosco.

He was also aware of the science produced across Europe. He knew Copernicus' work and made a short reference to it (Opera, 1566) with the objective of correcting some mathematical errors. He also established contacts with John Dee, Éliet Vinet and probably with Christopher Clavius.


He published left five major scientific works. Around 1534 he started writing a first manuscript of the Libro de Algebra, a book only published 33 years later. In December 1st 1537, published his first work, the Tratado da Sphera com a Theorica do Sol e da Lua (Lisboa: Germão Galhardo).

The next book named De Crepusculis liber unus (Olyssippone: Ludouicus Rodericus) came out on January 1542. In this book Nunes solved the problem of finding the day with the shortest twilight duration (and its value), for any given position.  

De erratis Orontii Finaei (Conimbricae: officina Joannis Barrerii & Joannis Aluari) followed, in 1546. This book was an explicit critique to Oronce Finé’s solutions to three classical geometrical problems (trisection of an angle; squaring the circle; duplicating the cube).

On December 22nd 1547, Nunes was appointed Cosmógrafo-Mor (Royal Cosmographer). It is almost certain that in 1559 he composed a Regimento do Cosmógrafo-mor (Royal Cosmographer’s Regiment), an important document that ruled the profession. This document is lost; nevertheless the Cosmographer’s Regiment of 1592 is known and contains much of its predecessor.


Despite being highly regarded by other men of science and by the royal family, the reception of his work was not unanimous. In 1549, Diogo de Sá published De navigatione Libri tres, in Paris, perhaps the most consistent attack to Nunes' work on navigation. This kind of polemical episodes occurred throughout his life, both with seamen and learned men. Also in the 1540's, he wrote a text, known as [Manuscrito de Florença], deffending from an attack against some of his ideas on navigation. Another learned man called Fernando de Oliveira made heavy personal and technical critiques to Nunes’ work in a book called Ars nautica (1570).


After his retirement from the University, Nunes dedicated much of his time to writing. In 1566 he published Petri Nonii Salaciensis Opera (Basileae: officina HenricPetrina). This book is a very much extended compilation of Nunes works about navigation and was, at the time, the state of the art of nautical science. It also included a commentary to Aristotle’s mechanical problem on the motion of a boat propelled by oars.

In the following year came out his last original publication Libro de Algebra en Arithmetica y Geometria (Anvers: en casa de los herederos d'Arnoldo Birckamn) a great contribution to the discipline prior to Viète’s In artem analyticam isagoge (1591).

In 1571, came out a compilation containing De Crepusculis and De erratis Orontii Finaei (Conimbricae: Antonius à Marijs). A second and improved edition of his Opera was published in 1573 (Conimbricae: Antonius à Marijs). It was then entitled De arte atque ratione navigandi.


On April 25th he was called back to Lisbon by king Sebastião, who had the intention to reinforce the technical formation of seamen.

In 1577 Pope Gregory XIII, consulted him about the project to reform the Calendar but Nunes died in Coimbra (August 11th, 1578) without advancing much to the project.



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Bruno Almeida and Henrique Leitão (Centre for the History of Sciences, Lisbon University)