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
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
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.
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
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.
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
the Tratado da Sphera com a Theorica do Sol e da Lua (Lisboa:
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;
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
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
On April 25th he
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.
- Episodes - Links