Aug 11 2018

Book review: Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis by Kim Todd

merianChrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis by Kim Todd has a self-explanatory title, it is about the life of Maria Sibylla Merian a scientific illustrator who lived 1647-1717, and the life cycle of insects – their metamorphosis.

“Scientific illustrator” does not feel like the right term for Merian. She actively collected insects, at all stages in their lifecycles to study how they developed. This involved learning how how to nurture the insects. Her illustrations showed the insects through the stages of their lives alongside the plants on which they lived and fed. This is close to a study of ecology which didn’t really gain recognition as an area of study until the early 19th century. In her fifties she spent a couple of years in Surinam where she continued her study of more exotic creatures.

She was born in Frankfurt where she lived until she married and moved to Nuremburg, also in what is now Germany. Her father, Matthäus Merian was an illustrator, as was her stepfather Jacob Marrel, her husband Johann Andreas Graff, was one of Marrel’s apprentices. In 1685 Merian left her husband to go to a religious community in the Netherlands (the Labadists in Wieuwerd) with her mother and two daughters. She left Wieuwerd in 1691 to live in Amsterdam where she stayed until her death in 1717, aside a two year trip to Surinam.

Surinam had been “visited” by Europeans in the 16th century, and the Dutch had gained control of it from the English in the late 17th century. The English got New Amsterdam, now New York, as a quid pro quo. The colony was under the control of the Dutch West India Company and Labadists had been amongst those that gone out to the colony, their stories returning with them to the community at Wieuwerd. Surinam was not unknown land but it was tropical, and the colonial government were keen to get people out to the country to make a more well-rounded society. Merian went there to study insects in the same way as she had done in Europe but was, to some degree foiled by the conditions: deep jungle, rife with disease. Nevertheless her study there led to the publication of her book: Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium. I must admit I’m rather tempted by this facsimile.

Merian received a good deal of encouragement from father and stepfather in pursing art but the guild and business systems of the time made it difficult for her to work professionally as an artist. She seems to have got by by forming relationships with a range of nature enthusiasts for whom she carried out commissions, selling her illustrations individually, and trading in specimens for cabinets of curiosities.

She appears to have been remarkably independent for the period. Caroline Herschel lived somewhat later than her in England but her work in astronomy was tied to her brother, William. Similarly her exact contemporary, Elisabeth Hevelius, who had her own reputation as an astronomer was closely coupled to that of her husband.

Merian lived in a time when the study of nature was evolving. People were still seriously asking whether certain forms of life appeared spontaneously (the Royal Society’s cheese mite experiments). Linneas had not yet created his nomenclature for living things. Gentlemen were populating “cabinets of curiosities” but they were disorganised assemblages of artefacts. She was a contemporary of Jan Swammerdam, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek and Robert Hook.

The past can be difficult to understand, the meanings of words can shift quite dramatically. For example, René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur said “The crocodile is certainly a fierce insect, but I am not in the least disturbed about calling it one!”.

This is all to say that Merian could quite reasonably be described as working at the cutting edge of biology.

Merian is surprisingly well-documented, this seems to be as a result of a couple of factors. Her family were moderately high-profile and as publishers / illustrators naturally left substantial records. She published several books which were reprinted over the next hundred years or so, her illustrations appeared, sometimes unattributed, in other publications. A chunk of her papers were acquired by Peter the Great and ended up in St Petersburgh where they were re-discovered in the 1970s.

Her work seems to have attracted criticism in the early 19th century, on grounds of inaccuracy understandable, since by this time her books were over 100 years old. This criticism was possibly also driven by the changing character of naturalists, they were starting to professionalise, and no doubt also linked to her gender. Many of her male contemporaries had some funny ideas but this is often glossed over.

I enjoyed Chrysalis it covers Merian’s life in some detail whilst bringing in a good flavour of the times in which she lived and the people she interacted with.

Aug 09 2018


This year’s summer holiday was to Westendorf in Austria, it was Thomas’ first trip abroad.

We flew from Manchester to Munich with Easyjet and got a taxi from Munich to Westendorf which averages a two hour drive. In future we’d probably get the train to Wörgl since the drive is prone to delay, and is very expensive. FastTrack security at Manchester is worth the £5 per head.

We stayed at Appartment Kurz in Westendorf which is a 5 minute walk from the village centre, close to the nursery slopes if you are there in winter. We had the ground floor apartment which had a south facing terrace looking onto the very quiet street. Two of the three bedrooms were in the basement which was excellent since this meant they were relatively cool – temperatures approached 30 degrees for the whole week.

Appartment Kurz

Further measures to combat the heat were to go up the mountain in the gondola, attend the open air swimming pool, and have a 1 scoop ice cream available for 1€. The open air swimming pool was great – probably not so good if it was cooler.

Mum was staying in Westendorf whilst we were there which was really nice for finding things to do, during the week she was presented with a voucher by the tourist office for her 35th visit to the village! We used the lift system – and the local buses – which are a roughly hourly service between Worgl and Kitzbuhel barring ~3pm when there is no bus for two hours! The buses are free on the tourist card which seems to be an intrinsic part of staying in the village. We got weekly lift passes which are much more economic than pay as you go.

Day 1 – Sunday

A gentle trip up the Alpenrosenbahn with a walk along the back route to Choralpe, where marmots can be seen (maybe). Best value entertainment – the “Ball run” – 2€ for a small wooden ball to roll down a run back towards Talkaser.



Day 2 – Monday

We took the bus to Hopfgarten and then the gondola to the top of Hohe Salve and back down to Hexenwasser, at Hoch Soll. Hexenwasser is a modest outdoor water park which is free to use. We had a ride up and down a chairlift, the only one running on the system, so Thomas could enjoy the experience.


Chairlift from Hexenwasser

Day 3 – Tuesday

To Brixen and then up to Filzalm See which is another waterpark this time centred around a little lake. It has a barefoot walk, featuring a lot of mud and a mechanical treadle which allows you to make a Poseidon-like figure to rise from the waters of the lake.



Day 4 – Wednesday

No lifts today, we walked the Wohlfühlweg (Wellbeing way) first thing in the morning, this is a trail along the edge of the woods by Westendorf that takes in some land-art style features. On our way back to the apartment we stopped off at Cafe Elisabeth for cake, so much cake. I’ve been to Cafe Elisabeth many times, it is only this time that I realised that Konditorei means “cake shop” in German, and not “air-conditioned” as had always assumed. In the afternoon we went to the outdoor swimming pool, very pleasant in the heat and quite reasonably priced – particularly if you go after 2pm.


46-IMG_1935  47-IMG_1938

Day 5 – Thursday

Back up the Alpenrosenbahn, I went to the summit by Choralpe. In the evening there was a market in the village where we got chicken and chips for our dinner.


Day 6 – Friday

Filzalm See again, early in the morning followed by swimming in the open air pool in the afternoon. I went for a walk through the woods where I saw some pigs.



Aug 05 2018

Book review: Nabokov’s Favourite Word is Mauve by Ben Blatt

nabokovNabakov’s Favourite word is Mauve by Ben Blatt is an exploration of language through numbers. To set the scene Blatt discusses the attribution of The Federalist Papers – a set of essays written, anonymously, by one or more of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay in support of ratification of the new US constitution. The problem was solved in in 1963 by Frederick Mosteller and David Wallace in 1963 by looking at the frequency of different words in the essays and how they compared to the frequencies of words in writings known to be by the three authors. They found that Madison had written all of the essays. An example of their approach: Madison used the word “whilst” in many of his known works but never the word “while”. Hamilton, on the other hand, never used the word “whilst”. Combining the frequencies of a number of such words provides a fingerprint for the writing style of an author. What struck me was that the “fingerprint” words are not at all exceptional.

In the sixties this type of frequency analysis was exceedingly tedious – Mosteller and Wallace physically cut up the essays and made little piles of words in order to count them! This type of heroic manual analysis was not uncommon across many quantitative sciences prior to the widespread availability of computers. These days such analyses are straightforward. The full texts of many books are freely downloadable, and there are programming libraries such as the natural language toolkit (NLTK) in Python which provide functions for word counting and other more sophisticated analyses

Blatt takes the opportunity to extend word counting analysis to more topics and a much extended collection of texts. These include best selling novels, fan fiction, classic fiction and US and UK English corpora (large bodies of expertly selected text). The books are all in English but with some foreign translations, and they are biased to the US market.
The topics covered include: the overuse of adverbs, particularly those ending -ly; he vs she – how male authors sometimes write almost entirely without mentioning “she” whilst the most extreme female authors still write about 20% “he”; differences between US and UK writers – it comes down to blokes, blimey and brilliant; and how the reading age of popular fiction has dropped over the years. Here there is a diversion into Dr Seuss’ Cat in the Hat and it’s 220 word vocabulary, given to Dr Seuss by Rudolf Flesch who was interested in readability, in fact I’ve recently used The Flesch-Kincaid readability index which he helped develop.

The title of the book comes from an analysis of favourite words of authors, those words which they use significantly more frequently than other others. Nabakov is an interesting case since he uses all words about colour significantly more frequently than other authors. This is likely linked to his synaesthesia – of which he has written. Ray Bradbury, in the other hand, is a fan of “cinnamon”, whilst Michael Connelly likes “nodding” and its variants. The chapter on favourite words also covers repeated words and clichés. Blatt is not judgemental about these habits, sometimes they have a dramatic effect.

As almost an aside Blatt reveals some of the commercial side of the publishing industry. I was struck by the “Big Name Author with …” phenomenon where a big name author such as James Patterson or Tom Clancy publish with a lesser known or unknown author. Analysis along the lines of Mosteller and Wallace show that these co-authors write the books with the Big Name providing story outlines (Patterson is straightforward that this is the case). Another example is the Stratemeyer Syndicate who published The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series which I recall from my childhood in the seventies. These books purport to have a named author but actually the author is a fiction and the books are published to a formula by a variety of writers (spread over more years than a living author might achieve). Finally, there is the phenomenon of the gigantic author credit on the front cover – Stephen King suffered from this, his name covered only 3% of the front cover of his first book, towards the end of the eighties it approached 40%!

The book finishes with an analysis of first and last lines.

The emphasis of the book is very much on the numbers with fairly cursory examination of the reasons for the numbers found, that said the book is an easy and thought provoking read.

Jul 21 2018

Book review: Sentimental Savants by Meghan K. Roberts

sentimental_savantsSentimental Savants by Meghan K. Roberts is about the role of the families of savants in the Enlightenment. In this respect it covers some of the themes of Patricia Fara’s book, Pandora’s Breeches.

The book focuses on French families, the author makes clear that this isn’t because of any special feature of French families, rather that one has to start somewhere. Each chapter covers a different facet of family life.

As usual for writing about this time I will clumsily switch between savant, natural philosopher and possibly even the anachronistic “scientist”. You know who I mean!

Prior to the Enlightenment the work of the “philosophe” was associated with monastic traditions of celibacy, or at the very least the absence of a married partner. This tradition maintained, in at least the University of Cambridge, for many years. Cambridge fellows were finally allowed to marry around 1860. During the Enlightenment in France, and elsewhere the personal life of the savant started to become important, being a good family man was seen as a benefit, it gave a savant moral authority. The evidence for these changes can be seen in the changes in style of the eulogies written for savants across the 18th century, publications including plays and learned works and through correspondence.

Women started to play a visible role in scientific and intellectual discourse during the Enlightenment. They did not have the full freedom of study that their male counterparts had. They were seen as record keepers, promoters, writers, translators, and housekeepers. It wasn’t unusual for a wife, or daughter, to be trained to the role that the man of the house had decided for her. The family was seen as part of a demonstration of savant as well-rounded person, women started to be seen as intellectuals in their own right. Émilie du Châtelet falls very clearly into this class.

In the 18th century inoculation against smallpox became a topic of public debate. Inoculation is a little different from vaccination, the patient is treated with the live virus and gets at least symptoms of the disease (a vaccine uses a dead microbe, or part of it). This makes it more risky than vaccination. In 18th century France philosophes would inoculate their children, and write publically about what they had done. This was to give moral authority to their arguments. A savant inoculating his children would be showing that he had thought about the risks and had gone ahead with the inoculation for the good of his child and of society.

The education of children is a theme of a further chapter. Rousseau makes an early entry in the book on the occasion of leaving his five children at the foundling hospital! Other savants took more care of their children. In France prior to 1762 much education was managed by the Jesuits but in 1762 they were banned from teaching. This left a gap which savants tried to fill. Although intellectual parents sought to educate both sons and daughters they approached this in a gendered fashion. Typically boys were prepared for prestigious roles in society, girls were prepared to be good wives.

The Lavoisiers make a couple of appearances in the book, first in describing the role of Marie-Anne Lavoisier in Antoine’s work and later in a chapter on Antoine’s work on his farm. Antoine was “father” to his estate, not only was he seeking to improve agricultural techniques for the benefit of France. He also wished to be seen as a paternal figure to the community, supporting it in times of need, helping to resolve disputes and tending to the sick.

The book does not present a glorious revolution whereby women came fully into the scientific community, frankly this hasn’t really happened yet – certainly in some fields – but it does show how the role of savant / academic / scientist started to move away from the lonely genius to a man embedded in family life. From the point of view of women, it represented a time where women started to become, explicitly, part of the scientific enterprise.

I notice that Roberts cites Ken Alder in her acknowledgements, his book (The Measure of All Things) on measuring the size of the Earth by triangulating a meridian through revolutionary France is well worth reading – as is Poirier’s book Lavoisier: Chemist, Biologist, Economist. As a testament to the power of blogging I see that Poirier also wrote a biography of Marie-Anne Lavoisier (La science et L’amour: Mme Lavoisier), mentioned in the comments to my post of his book on Antoine.

I found this an enjoyable read, introducing a facet to the history of science that is relatively little covered.

Jun 27 2018

Book review: The Devil’s Doctor by Philip Ball

devils_doctorThe Devil’s Doctor by Philip Ball is a biography of Paracelsus, and a view of Renaissance magic and science. Paracelsus, who lived from 1493 to 1541 was a contemporary of figures such as Copernicus (1473-1543) and Vesalius (1514-1564), who preceded closely William Harvey, William Gilbert,Galileo and Francis Bacon.

Each chapter says something about Paracelsus and something about the time in which he lived. So we start with his early life growing up in a small town in Switzerland, his father a physician. Before moving on to a town in what is now Austria, where his father worked as a teacher in a mining school. The aside here is on the early mining industry, in this case in the Austrian Tyrol, dominated by the entertainingly named Fugger family who had gained their pre-eminent position by lending money to the nobility with silver mines as collateral.

Mining, or rather the refining of ores into metal is a “scientific” process, mixtures of seemingly unpromisingly materials are heated and, as if by magic, a shiny and valuable metal appears. In the 16th century we would not recognise the theories by which the refining process was rationalised but they highlight the importance of understanding what was to become chemistry for profit.

What’s notable about these two chapters is that one can easily see how Paracelsus started learning early. Subsequent chapters cover Paracelsus’s own education as a physician, although it is not clear whether he ever “qualified”, and a tour of Europe chased by war.

Paracelsus was a contemporary of Martin Luther and on the face of it they and something in common in their desire to overthrow the status quo. However, Luther was very focussed on solving what he saw to be the shortcomings of the administrative side of the Catholic church. Fundamentally, he wasn’t interested in science and its reform away from the scholastic creed. Luther’s view was that God was Divine and had no need to construct a Creation amenable to scientific understanding.

Paracelsus was interested in overthrowing the status quo, particularly in medicine. To that point medicine was largely about following the teachings of the ancient Greeks whose surviving medical practice was based on the four humours. Medicine was about substances and processes to correct imbalances in the humours which arose in specific diseases. Paracelsus emphasised practical study and observation rather than cleaving to these old theoretical models for medicine. He advised seeking out folk remedies specific to places, believing that diseases and their cures were localised. So his world view was something akin to our own but not exactly so, he represents a transitional state. He also counselled only undertaking minimal surgery – exceedingly wise advice at the time.

Paracelsus’s study of “chemistry” went hand in hand with his medical work. He experimented to make medicines extracting chemicals from natural sources, combining them with other materials. At the time this type of work was usually tied up with alchemy, which was interested in turning base materials into gold and elixirs for eternal life. Alchemy was part chemistry and part mysticism and secrets. Paracelsus practicised each of these elements although it seems he was less enamoured of the secretive side. His alchemical writings were more straightforward than some of his contemporaries and predecessors. The theoretical underpinnings he provided for his work seem bizarre to us but chemistry is a difficult thing. It took hundreds of years to reach the point at which we are now and Paracelsus came early in that time.

Local man (to me) Robert of Chester gets a mention as a translator of alchemical texts. Authorship seemed a fluid concept in the early period with some people attributing their work to more renowned writers – difficult to disentangle after so many years.

For the chemists amongst us, it seems that Paracelsus discovered diethyl ether whilst trying to make sulphuric acid palatable by mixing it with wine. It is mindboggling that sulphuric acid was used as a medicine!

Many of the chapters end with Paracelsus having fled a city, typically because he had offended one authority or another. He was certainly cantankerous, it is difficult to say whether he was personally unpleasant. The way he practiced medicine was, to a degree, out of tune with the times and seemed more caring than his contemporaries. I was struck by how well documented Paracelsus’s life seemed to be, perhaps this is partly a result of his peripatetic nature.

The book finishes with a couple of chapters set after Paracelsus’s death, the first of these looks at how his writings were collected and published after his death by a band of supporters, and how a weaker band of opponents also wrote about him. This conflict probably also contributed to the relatively high level of documentation for his life. The final chapter looks at his longer term impact, this is a mixed picture. Unlike Copernicus, Vesalius, Harvey and the like he did not leave discoveries which are valid today. Rather his methodology informed the changes that were to take place in the 17th century.

Older posts «