Jun 07 2020

Book review: Science City by Alexandra Rose and Jane Desborough

science_cityOn Twitter I hang out with a load of historians of science, and this has lead me to Science City: Craft, Commerce and Curiosity in London 1550-1800 by Alexandra Rose and Jane Desborough. This is an edited volume which accompanies the new Linbury Gallery at the Science Museum, combining objects from the Science Museum, King George III collection and the Royal Society. This book touches on many of the books I’ve read previously on the Board of Longitude, the transit of Venus, surveying and map making.

The main part of the book is four roughly chronological chapters covering the development of an instrument making industry in London, the Royal Society, public displays of science, and global expeditions. At the beginning of the period covered by the book, 1550, London was not a particularly notable city – it was a quarter the size of Paris and only twice the size of Norwich – England’s second city at the time. It had no universities, in fact it wasn’t to have a university until 1826.

The instrument trade in London started with a need to fulfil the requirement for “mathematical instruments” for surveying, gunnery and architecture. It was boosted by immigrants from the Low Countries fleeing persecution. In 1571 5% of the London population were “strangers” – born outside of England. These immigrants were not unwelcome, foreign manufactured goods were often seen as better quality which caused some resentment in the Guilds. Skills were developed and maintained by apprenticeships. These were typically found by personal contacts in the 16th century, there was no advertising of positions. Science City traces some apprenticeship “lineages”. In the early days there was no specific Guild for instrument making.

The second chapter brings in the Royal Society founded in 1666. As well as the instrumental needs of Robert Hooke, its Curator of Experiments, it stimulated a wider trade in instruments. The members of the Royal Society were keen to replicate experiments, or do their own experiments to share with the Society (or at least keen enough to spend money on instruments). Variants of the air pump demonstrations Hooke did were still being done 40 years later. The Royal Society put London at the centre of a network of scientific correspondents, and to some degree defined the way to be a scientist that maintains to this day.

In the ensuing years public science became a popular entertainment. Popularisers of science needed instruments to ply their trade. By this point in the first half of the 18th century there are 300 instrument makers in London, their business is divided into mathematical instruments (theodolites, sextants and the like), optical instruments (microscopes and telescopes) and philosophical instruments (those used to demonstrate physical principles). Its interesting to see the birth of branding at this point, makers were known by their shops signs and for clarity they would typically use a consistent image across there pamphlets and shopfront (rather than simply words). Examples include Benjamin Martin’s “spectacle” logo, and Edward Culpeper’s crossed daggers.

The final chapter covers the second half of the 18th century, this is at a time where the Ordnance Survey is founded alongside triangulation surveys with France. The chapter speaks to the global reach of London in trade and in science. This is the time of the Board of Longitude which was founded, making its major awards to John Harrison for his chronometer in the second half of the 18th century. The expeditions to view the transit of Venus in 1769 were also significant – the Royal Society petitioned the King to fund an expedition to Tahiti, this was accompanied by other expeditions which led to a requirement for moderately standardised instrumentation to make the measurements. London was able to supply this demand.

Science City finishes with interviews with an instrument maker (Joanna Migdal), the President of the Royal Society and the Lord Mayor of London (also a trustee of the Science Museum). The first of these I found really interesting I wish there were photos of the sundials the interviewee made, you can find some here on their website. Migdal’s work, individual, handcrafted items, is probably in the character of the instrument making of this book but differs from the typical instrument ecosystems these days.

The book is rather smaller than I expected but it is beautifully illustrated, more a bedside table than a coffee table book. I enjoy these catalogues of museum exhibitions more than the exhibitions themselves. In the gallery you are pushed for time and space, reading the descriptions can be difficult cross-referencing to other things you have read is impractical. A book makes it a more comfortable process but just lacks the immediacy of seeing the objects “in-person”.

May 08 2020

Book review: The Pope of Physics by Gino Segrè and Bettina Hoerlin

fermiThe Pope of Physics by Gino Segrè and Bettina Hoerlin is the biography of Enrico Fermi. I haven’t read any scientific biography for a while and this book on Enrico Fermi was on my list. He is perhaps best known for leading the team that constructed the first artificial nuclear reactor as part of the Manhattan Project. As a lapsed chemical physicist I also know him for Fermi surfaces, Fermi-Dirac statistics, and the Fermi method. Looking on Wikipedia there is a whole page of physics related items named for him.

Fermi was born at the beginning of the 20th century, his parents were born before Italy was unified in 1870 when illiteracy was not uncommon and people typically stayed close to home since travel quickly involved crossing borders.

Fermi was identified as something of a prodigy whom a friend of his father, Adolfo Amidei, took under his wing and smoothed his path to Pisa Scuola Normale Superior. As I sit here in in a mild lockdown I was bemused to note that the entrance exams Fermi took were delayed by the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. At Pisa Fermi learned largely under his own steam, at the time physics was not an important subject – the Pisa Scuola had five professors in physics and only one in physics. Fermi graduated at the top of his class.

After Pisa Fermi fell into the path of Orso Mario Corbino, a physicist, politician and talented organiser who set about helping Fermi to build a career in physics. At the time a new quantum physics was growing, led primarily by young men such as Pauli, Dirac, Heisenberg and Schrödinger who was a little older. Fermi met them on a scholarship to Göttingen in Germany. He later went to Leiden on a scholarship where he met Ehrenfest, and Einstein who was very taken with him. This was preparation for building a new physics capability in Italy.

The fruits of this preparation were a period in the mid-1930s which saw Fermi and his research group at Rome University invent a theory of nuclear decay which revealed the weak nuclear force and postulated the existence of the neutrino (this theoretical work was Fermi’s alone). The wider research group studied the transmutation of elements by slow neutron bombardment. This work was to win Fermi the 1938 Nobel Prize for Physics.

This research led on directly to the discovery of nuclear fission and the chain reaction which became highly relevant as Fermi fled Italy to the US with his wife on the eve of the Second World War. Many of Fermi’s friends, including his wife Laura, were Jewish. Fermi steered clear of politics to a large degree, he benefitted from the patronage of Mussolini but was no fascist enthusiast. The Italian uses of chemical weapons in Ethopia and, ultimately, the racial laws of the late 1930s which expelled Jews from their positions drove him from the country. He had visited the US a number of times in the early 1930s and had little trouble finding a position at Columbia University.

The route to the atomic bomb was not quick and smooth in the early years of the war, a number of physicists had noted the possibility of the fission bomb and attempted to warn politicians of its potential. This all changed when the Americans joined the war, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour.

Building an atomic bomb presented a number of scientific challenges which Fermi was well-placed to address, primary amongst these was building “Critical Pile 1” the first system to undergo a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction. It was constructed, slightly surreptitiously, in a squash court at Chicago University. It was built there as a result of a dispute with the contractor who was due to build it a little outside Chicago, at Argonne.

The “critical pile” demonstrated two things: firstly that chain reactions existed, and secondly it provided a route to producing the nuclear isotopes required to produce a bomb. It still left the question of how to purify the isotopes, and the question of how to produce a critical mass fast enough to cause a worthwhile explosion.

Fermi would go on to help in the Manhattan Project at Hanford and then Los Alamos where he held a position combining both universal scientific consultancy and administration, or at least organisation.

It is difficult to talk about Fermi’s strengths as a physicist – he had so many – he is almost unique in being both a top flight experimentalist, and theoretician. This is the great divide in physics, and people who are talented in both fields are rare. He was also clearly an excellent teacher, as well as undergraduate teaching and writing a high school physics book he supervised 7 students who would go on to earn Nobel Prizes in physics. Alongside this he was clearly personable.

Fermi died in November 1954 a little after his 53rd birthday, leaving in his wake a large number of prizes, buildings and discoveries as a memorial.

I found The Pope of Physics highly readable, the chapters are quite short but focused.

Apr 18 2020

Book review: Sea monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps by Chet van Duzer

sea_monstersA borrowed book for my next review: Sea monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps by Chet van Duzer. Mrs H bought this as a by-product of buying a Christmas present on some quirky gifts site.

The book is well-described by its title, it is about sea monsters on medieval and Renaissance maps. Although a couple of classical antecedents are mentioned the main action starts in the 9th century and finishes at the beginning of the 17th century.

The book is organised roughly chronologically without chapters but with sections recorded in the contents – there are approximately 50 sections broken up by four "pictorial excursions". Much of the material is from the 16th century. As we go further back in time fewer and fewer examples of any sort of written or printed materials survive. Prior to 1472 any maps will have been reproduced by hand rather than printed.

Sea monsters were not found universally in maps through this period, in fact they were relatively rare. Adding sea monster was an additional cost and rarely added any useful information. The sea monsters were often drawn separately from the cartographic elements of the map, suggesting they were a specialisation. Sometimes they were direct copies from other sources. Sea monsters were often derived from recent scientific works, and influences can be seen across multiple maps. Sometimes the sea monsters depicted are playing a role in myths or stories such as Jonah and the whale, or the story of Saint Brendan who, on a voyage, is said to have landed on a whale, not realising its nature a fire was lit and the whale sank beneath them.

There is a lot of evidence of artist working from verbal descriptions of animals by non-expert observers. This is at a time before naturalists had been invented so observations of wildlife were not systematic. There’s a great double page spread illustrating the development of drawings of walruses from pretty much elephants to recognisable walruses(see below).

walruses_1walruses_2

Figure 1: The cartographic career of the Walrus

Sea monsters came in various forms, many reflected real animals we might see today, although rendered strangely as we see with the walrus. Others were human – animal hybrids such as mermaids. Finally there are the outright whimsical – various dragons, krakens, unicorns – owl faced creatures and the like.

Mappamundi were the earliest maps to contain sea monsters although they are not maps as we would recognise them, you couldn’t navigate by them. They were symbolic representations of the world both physical and spiritual, rather than being entirely useful for navigation. A common feature was that the focus in these maps on the land rather than the sea. I was confused by mentions of the Beatus mappamundi which appears in multiple locations before realising that these were copies of a single mappamundi which varied since they were manually created. The place name refers to a particular copy (i.e. Genoa or Manchester), and different copies have different sea monsters. They are based on a map found in the Commentary on the Apocalypse by Beatus of Liébana. This was written sometime in the 8th century and subsequently copied.

The earliest surviving navigational maps are from the 13th century, these are intended as more functional objects and initially focussed on the region around the Mediterranean. In contrast to the mappmundi, these maps were focussed on the sea and coastal areas. There were variants made which clearly played a more decorative role, collectors items that showed your wealth and knowledge. These maps were more likely to contain illustrations of sea monsters.

In addition to freestanding maps there were also illustrated versions of Ptolemy’s Geography which included sea monsters, although the Madrid version of 1455-60 is the only manuscript version to include such sea monsters. Later printed version contained more sea monsters.

The sea monsters in Olaus Magnus’s Nautical chart and description of the Northern lands and Wonders published in 1539 are particularly rich and varied. They can also be found copied in Mercator’s globe of 1541 and Euphrosynus Ulpius’s globe of 1542. Mercator was less eclectic in his collecting of sea monsters for his atlas of 1569.

The book finishes as the 17th century opens when fantastical sea monsters on maps largely fell out of favour to be replaced with more ships and practical illustrations of whaling and the like. The sea was no longer quite so mysterious and man was increasingly exerting control over it, and its contents.

This is a fun book, a nice present for a cartophile. It would have been good to have a timeline of the maps discussed. There is probably an interesting parallel book on the monsters seen in terrestrial maps of the same period.

Mar 05 2020

Book Review: The Egg & Sperm Race by Matthew Cobb

egg_and_spermI follow quite a few writers on Twitter, and this often leads me to read their books. The Egg & Sperm Race by Matthew Cobb is one such book. It traces the transition in thinking on the reproduction of animals, including humans, which occurred during the second half of the 17th century.

Prior to this we had some pretty odd ideas as to how animals reproduced, much of it carried over from the Ancient Greeks. Ovid and Virgil both claimed that you could make bees by burying a bull with its horns protruding from the ground, waiting and then cutting off the horns to release the bees! This confusion is not surprising, the time between mating and the appearance of young is quite long, and the early stages of the process are hidden by being very small, and deep inside animals.

A random “fact” I cannot help but repeat is that Avicena wrote that “a scorpion will fall dead if confronted with a crab which a piece of sweet basil basil has been tied”. I wonder sometimes with quotes such as these whether they are a result of mistranslation, or a bored scribe. The point really is such ideas were not discounted out of hand at the time. The Egg & Sperm Race starts with a description of da Vinci’s copulating couple which is beautiful but wrong – da Vinci connects the testicles to the brain – these structures do not exist.

The heart of the action in The Egg and Sperm Race is in the Netherlands, in England the Royal Society showed relatively little interest in generation aside from some experiments on the spontaneous generation of cheese mites. The Chinese and Arab scholars who had worked in various fields showed little interest in generation.

The central characters are Jan Swammerdam, Niels Stensen (known as Steno) and Reinier de Graaf, who met in Leiden at the university in the early 1660s when they were in their early twenties. Swammerdam and Steno were a little older than de Graaf and were close friends. Soon after meeting in Leiden they visited Paris where they continued to build contacts in the scientific community.

In understanding generation a first step was to realise that all animals came from other animals of the same species, and that this meant mating between two animals of the same species. Steno went to Italy and worked with Francesco Redi’s whose experiments were key to this, he checked exhaustively that insects did not arise from the putrefaction of material. Swammerdam was also interested in insects, classifying four different types of invertebrate development and showing that in moths traces of the adult form are found in the caterpillar. At the time it was not clear that the larval stage and the adult were the same species.

A second step was to realise that all animals came from eggs of some sort, William Harvey –  of blood circulation fame – did experiments in this area but although he stated this conclusion but it was not well-supported by his experiments. In the period at the beginning of this book, the role of the ovary was not understand. Steno carried out dissections on fish both those that laid eggs, and those that gave birth to live young from this he concluded that the ovaries were the source of eggs and asserted that this was the case for humans as well. This idea rapidly gained acceptance.

The discovery of the human egg, and its origins in the ovary, was the subject of a dispute between de Graaf and Swammerdam on priority. The Royal Society decided in favour of van Horne with whom Swammerdam had worked on the dissection and illustration of female reproductive anatomy. To modern eyes the written record of the dispute, in letters, and publications is surprisingly personal. De Graaf died at the age of 32 just prior to the Royal Society decision. It was a difficult time in the Netherlands with the country at war with England and France with France troops invading parts of the country.

Leeuwenhook cast a spanner into the works with his microscopical studies, he observed spermatozoa but not the female egg and as a result became a “spermist”, believing that life came from the sperm in contrast to the “ovists” who believed life came from the egg. We now know that they are both right. The human egg was not observed until 1826 by von Baer. And I have to mention Spallazani’s experiments on frogs wearing taffeta shorts, demonstrating that male sperm was required to fertilise the female egg.

The final chapter covers events from the end of the 17th century or a little later to present day. Linneaus’s classification work, and Darwin’s theory of evolution follow on from some of the core realisations of this earlier period. Neither Linneaus’ work nor Darwin’s work make much sense if you don’t believe that animals (and plants) grow from eggs/seeds which came from the same species. It wasn’t until von Baer’s work in the early 19th century that the female egg was observed.

Jan 30 2020

Book review: How the States got their Shapes by Mark Stein

how_the_statesHow the States got their Shapes by Mark Stein is that book that does exactly what it says on the cover: explain the origin of the shapes of the states of the United States. The book starts with some broad brush strokes that underpin the shaping of many states before going through each State in alphabetical order.

States are not strictly comparable with European nations but it is interesting to compare the never-straight borders of Europe with the regularity of particularly Western states. To a British European the events described in the book are all terribly recent – much of the action occurs during the 19th century! I considered extending this statement to all Europeans but there has been quite a bit of change in national borders in Europe over the last 200 years.

The large scale features of the USA arise from a number of sources. The earliest of these originate from the French and Indian War in the mid-18th century which saw the England and the colonists take the territory around the Great Lakes from the French and subsequently take further land from the French in the Louisiana Purchase. Further to the west territory came from the Spanish and then a newly independent Mexico. The border with Canada was agreed largely at the 49th parallel with the British in 1818. Later the Dutch would cede their territory along the Hudson river and the Spanish the last of their territory in what is Florida.

There are some recurring themes determining the shapes of states, one that comes up repeatedly is the desire for Congress to create States of equal size, in the West there are sets of states with the same height (3o) and width (7o). This concept extended to access to resources, so the ports on the Great Lakes are shared amongst the surrounding States. A second big driving force is slavery, the Missouri Compromise placed a boundary at a latitude of 36o 30′ below which slavery was allowed, and above which it was not. This motivated boundaries of states, and led to a battle to create equal numbers of states above and below the line.

There are irregularities. Boston Corner looks like it should belong in  Massachusetts but is actually in New York state, this is because the terrain made access to Boston Corner from the rest of Massachusetts difficult. In the early days this type of inaccessibility led to lawlessness, so states were willing to cede territory to avoid it. Whole states were created to address potential lawlessness, when gold was discovered in what is now Idaho it was felt too distant from Oregon to be ruled from there with the influx of unruly gold miners. There was also a concern that they would displace the coastal Oregonians from government.

Sometimes a river makes a good boundary although when the river has tributaries things get a bit tricky, it is even worse when borders are defined with reference to “head waters” which are notoriously difficult to locate. The other problem with rivers is that they meander – meaning that chunks of a State may find themselves on the “wrong” side of a river when the river moves. In some cases surveying errors and mistakes in negotiations led to oddly formed borders.

The supersize California and Texas states are a result of their own origins in virtual nationhood. Texas was, for a brief period, an independent country which subsequently joined the Union. California formed with the influx of the miners who came for gold, the Union was more concerned that they join than try to enforce borders upon the new State.

The charters of the original US colonies which later evolved into states typically gave them territories that stretched all the way from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast, during the 17th and 18th centuries this was largely moot – colonies scarcely had the wherewithal to maintain small populations on the  Eastern seaboard. The British monarchs granting these charters were not necessarily consistent, or particularly well-advised. So some boundaries are defined by “headwaters” which are notoriously ill-defined.

It is inevitable that the book is a bit repetitive, after all every border has two sides. This is occasionally jarring but usually handled quite well with cross referencing.

Missing from this book is much reference to the Native Americans, they are mentioned as an aside in a few places but little more than that. There is another book in the territories of the Native Americans prior to the European colonisation of the country – I just don’t know where it is! This article on The best books on Native Americans and Colonisers looks like a good place to start.

Overall I quite enjoyed this book, I read most of it on a long train ride. I suspect maps and boundaries are a bit of a niche interest but I feel I also picked up the broad shape of the creation of the USA.

Older posts «