Tag Archive: biography

Aug 13 2017

Book review: The Comet Sweeper by Claire Brock

thecometsweeperA return to women in science in this post where I review The Comet Sweeper: Caroline Herschel’s Astronomical Ambition by Claire Brock, a biography of a woman who discovered comets and nebulae and published a catalogue of astronomical objects in the later years of the 18th century. For scientists the name “Herschel” will not be unknown. Caroline Herschel’s brother William discovered Uranus, and was paid as an astronomer by King George III. Her nephew, John was also well known as a scientist. However, relatively little has been written about Caroline.

The Comet Sweeper is based substantially on the autobiographical writing of Herschel. However, she was sufficiently well-known at the time to be referenced elsewhere, and indeed later in her life was bestowed with various honours and medals for her astronomical work.

Herschel was born in Hanover in 1750, her father Isaac was a musician and very much a self-taught man – something he passed on to Caroline. Anna, her mother, gets a less than sympathetic treatment from her daughter and consequently this book. For her early years Anna treated Caroline as a servant, and stopped her education as soon as it appeared it would help her leave the Herschel household in Hanover. She was finally given a means of escape when her brother, William, invited her to Bath to work in music with him in 1771. She had no previous training in music and put herself assiduously to learning what she needed to know. William Herschel was earning up to £400 per year from music lessons and the like when he invited his sister to join him. It seems that Caroline became a significant musician in her own right, at least until her brother dragged her into astronomy.

This is something of a theme through the book, Caroline Herschel is clearly very capable and when given the opportunity can excel in whatever she turns her hand to. But the choices she has are limited. In the first instance her mother controls what she can do, then her brother – switching her from music to astronomy with little regard for her own wishes.

In astronomy Herschel started by assisting her brother in the workshop – at the time, to get the best telescope, you built them from scratch yourself. She supported him in his observations but she also carried out observations on her own. The “sweeping” of the title is the systematic scanning of the night sky with a telescope to identify static features such as stars and nebulae but more specifically to find comets. To a degree the discovery of nebulae was incidental to the main task of finding comets, nebulae were easily confused with comets so recording their locations was an essential part of finding comets. The Herschel’s work followed, but only by a few years, the publication of Charles Messier’s first catalogue of diffuse celestial objects in 1774.

As well as discovering comets and nebulae Herschel was also responsible for publishing Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars in 1798, which built on the earlier work of Flamsteed. Ultimately this became the New General Catalogue of stars. Amateur astronomers will know this work, Messier’s catalogue provides information on the 100 or so most prominent objects whose identifying numbers are prefixed with an M- beyond this are the NGC objects – from the New General Catalogue which is the descendant of Herschel and Flamsteed’s catalogue.

Herschel was honoured in her own lifetime with a gold medal from the Royal Astronomical Society, as well as honorary membership and medal from the King of Prussia, at the age of 96. She was the first woman to be published in Philosophical Transactions the journal of the Royal Society. These awards did come until quite late in her life although she was paid £50 per annum by King George III as an assistant to her brother. He was paid rather more, £200, but notably rather less than he earned as a musician.

I found the broader insight that The Comet Sweeper gave into the lives of Georgian women was interesting. Women did not have formal positions within the scientific community of the time but they contributed as wives, sisters, daughters. At the time there was little in the way of formal, paid, scientific community – it was very much a gentleman’s club but there was a place for women in it although not necessarily of equal status.

This was to change later in the 19th century when science became institutionalised, as a result women were excluded by, for example, not being able to receive degrees or even attend lectures at university. 

The Comet Sweeper is not a long book, it is readable and casts an interesting light on women in science in Georgian England and the specific contributions of Caroline Herschel.

May 27 2017

Book review: The Man Who Ate the Zoo by Richard Girling

AteTheZooA second birthday book: The Man Who Ate the Zoo by Richard Girling is the biography of Francis (Frank) Buckland who lived 1826-80 and can best be described as a naturalist populariser. His father William Buckland was a famous naturalist, and also Dean of Westminster.

The book is chronological in its layout, starting with something of Buckland’s father William Buckland. Who coined the term coprolites to describe fossilised faeces. An early geologist he was also a theologian, rising to become the Dean of Westminster and by this connection his son Frank was exposed to the best in society from a young age.

Girling writes less of Buckland’s mother but there is a rather poignant letter to him from her as he leaves at the age of five to go to boarding school. It is loving but bemoans his impatience and lack of obedience, a letter I might write to my own son!

Buckland’s life at school and then university was unremarkable from an academic point of view but rather exotic. At school he seems to have spent a great deal of time dissecting any number of animals which came under his hand including numerous domestic cats. At the time this appears to have been unusual but no cause for concern. At university he kept something of a menagerie including a bear, named Tiglath-Pileser.

Following university Buckland trained as a surgeon, travelling to Paris in 1849 to dissect victims of cholera, who were in ample supply – the disease killed 19,000 people in that city. After training he joined the Life Guards in London as a surgeon. This does not appear to have been an onerous job since he managed to write a great deal during this time and dissect pretty much what he wanted.

He left the army in 1863, and took up residence in Albany Street, close to London Zoo and married Hannah Papps, who had borne him a child some years previously, out of wedlock – which would have been scandalous at the time. The child, Physie (Francis John), died at the age of four and a half.

Writing then became Buckland’s career. He published Curiosities of Natural History and wrote copious articles for periodicals such as The Field. The house at Albany Street played host to the famous and the “freakish”. Buckland’s interest in nature extended to the unusual in humans: giants, dwarves, hairy women and Siamese twins. Somewhat quaintly the author claims we no longer have the terrible freak shows of Victorian times. I suggest he peruse a few documentaries on TV! 

Buckland was a member of the British Acclimatisation Society whose purpose was introducing new domestic animals into the United Kingdom for the purposes of feeding the masses more cheaply, or better for the same sum. This led to a life of eating all manner of strange and exotic creatures. Perhaps happily little came of their investigations.

Buckland was appointed Inspector of Fisheries in 1867. This started in inland waters where he travelled the country inspecting salmon rivers and also worked on fish farming, eventually sending salmon eggs around the world to populate New Zealand rivers. He was keen to restore the inland waterways to make them liveable for salmon both in terms of their cleanliness and the infrastructure in them – putting salmon ladders beside man-made weirs. Subsequently he worked on marine fisheries. His final substantial work was a report on marine fisheries: Report on the sea fisheries of England and Wales.

The Victorian period was a time of change, early in the 19th century the first animal protection legislation was enacted and towards the end there was a growing realisation of the impact of man on the environment. In a way Report on sea fisheries was a swansong to the old way of thinking, it put forward the idea that the sea fisheries were effectively limitless in their capacity but called for more research into these critical food animals.

Buckland, and his father, lived in the time of Charles Darwin although his father died before the publication of On the Origin of Species  in 1859. The origins of life had been a topic of scientific interest to which both Bucklands made their contribution, on the side of the what we would now call the Creationists.

I couldn’t help thinking of Michael Faraday and David Attenborough when reading about Frank Buckland, neither can claim to be the greatest of scientists but their impact through communicating a wonder of science and nature (and a genuine deep knowledge of them) has been enormous.

The Man Who Ate the Zoo is a pleasant enough read, Buckland is an interesting character and left a legacy in fisheries research. 

Dec 17 2015

Book review: The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf

inventionofnatureThe Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf is subtitled The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt – this is his biography.

Alexander von Humboldt was born in Berlin in 1769, he died in 1859. The year in which On the Origin of Species was published. He was a naturalist of a Romantic tendency, born into an aristocratic family, giving him access to the Prussian court.

He made a four year journey to South America in 1800 which he reported (in part) in his book Personal Narratives, which were highly influential – inspiring Charles Darwin amongst many others. On this South American trip he made a huge number of observations across the natural and social sciences and was sought after by the newly formed US government as the Spanish colonies started to gain independence. Humboldt was a bit of a revolutionary at heart, looking for the liberation of countries, and also of slaves. This was one of his bones of contention with his American friends.

His key scientific insight was to see nature as an interconnected web, a system, rather than a menagerie of animals created somewhat arbitrarily by God. As part of this insight he saw the impact that man made on the environment, and in some ways inspired what was to become the environmentalist movement.

For Humboldt the poetry and art of his observations were as important as the observations themselves. He was a close friend of Goethe who found him a great inspiration, as did Henry David Thoreau. This was at the time when Erasmus Darwin was publishing his “scientific poems”. This is curious to the eye of the modern working scientist, modern science is not seen as a literary exercise. Perhaps a little more effort is spent on the technical method of presentation for visualisations but in large part scientific presentations are not works of beauty. 

Humboldt was to go voyaging again in 1829, conducting a whistle-stop 15,000 mile 25 week journey across Russia sponsored by the government. On this trip he built on his earlier observations in South America as well as carrying out some mineral prospecting observations for his employers.

Despite a paid position in the Prussian court in Berlin he much preferred to spend his time in Paris, only pulled back to Berlin as the climate in Paris became less liberal and his paymaster more keen to see value for money.

Personally he seemed to be a mixed bag, he was generous in his support of other scientists but in conversation seems to have been a force of nature, Darwin came away from a meeting with him rather depressed – he had not managed to get a word in edgewise!  

I’m increasingly conscious of how the climate of the time influences the way we write about the past. This seems particularly the case  with The Invention of Nature. Humboldt’s work on what we would now call environmentalism and ecology are highly relevant today. He was the first to talk so explicitly about nature as a system, rather than a garden created by God. He pre-figures the study of ecology, and the more radical Gaia Hypothesis of James Lovelock. He was already alert to the damage man could do to the environment, and potentially how he could influence the weather if not the climate. There is a brief discussion of his potential homosexuality which seems to me another theme in keeping with modern times.

The Invention of Nature is sub-subtitled “The Lost Hero of Science”, this type of claim is always a little difficult. Humboldt was not lost, he was famous in his lifetime. His name is captured in the Humboldt Current, the Humboldt Penguin plus many further plants, animals and geographic features. He is not as well-known as he might be for his theories of the interconnectedness of nature, in this area he was eclipsed by Charles Darwin. In the epilogue Wulf suggests that part of his obscurity is due to anti-German sentiment in the aftermath of two World Wars. I suspect the area of the “appropriate renownedness of scientific figures of the past” is ripe for investigation. 

The Invention of Nature is very readable. There are seven chapters illustrating Humboldt’s interactions with particular people (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Thomas Jefferson, Simon Bolivar, Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, George Perkins Marsh, Ernst Haeckel and John Muir). Marsh was involved in the early environmental movement in the US, Muir in the founding of the Yosemite National Park (and other National Parks). At first I was a little offended by this: I bought a book on Humboldt, not these other chaps! However, then I remembered I actually prefer biographies which drift beyond the core character and this approach is very much in the style of Humboldt himself.

Aug 18 2014

Book review: Degrees Kelvin by David Lindley

How to start? I’ve read another book… degrees_kelvinDegrees Kelvin: A tale of genius, invention and tragedy by David Lindley. This is a biography of William Thomson, later Lord Kelvin, who lived 1824-1907.

Thomson lived at a time when the core of classical physics came into being, adding thermodynamics and electromagnetism to Newtonian mechanics. He played a significant role in creating these areas of study. As well as this he acted as a scientific advisor in the creation of the transatlantic telegraph, electric power transmission, marine compasses and a system of units for electromagnetism. He earned a substantial income from patents relating to telegraphy and maritime applications, and bought a blingy yacht (the Lalla Rookh) with the money.

He died a few years after the discovery of radioactivity, x-rays, special relativity and the first inklings of quantum mechanics – topics that were to form “modern physics”.

The book starts with William Thomas heading off to Cambridge to study maths. Prior to going he has already published in a mathematical journal on Philip Kelland’s misinterpretation of Fourier’s work on heat.

His father, James Thomson is a constant presence through his time in Cambridge in the form of a stream of letters, these days he’d probably be described as a “helicopter parent”. James Thomson is constantly concerned with his son falling in with the wrong sort at university, and with the money he is spending. James Thomson was a professor of mathematics at Glasgow University, William had attended his classes at the university along with his brother. Hence his rapid entry into academic publishing.

Fourier’s work Analytical Theory of Heat is representative of a style of physics which was active in France at the beginning of the 19th century. He built a mathematical model of the flow of heat in materials, with techniques for calculating the temperature throughout that body – one of which were the Fourier series – still widely used by scientists and engineers today. For this purpose the fundamental question of what heat was could be ignored. Measurements could be made of heat flow and temperature, and the model explained these outward signs. Fourier’s presentation was somewhat confused, which led Philip Kelland – in his book Theory of Heat to claim he was wrong. Thomson junior’s contribution was to clarify Fourier’s presentation and point out, fairly diplomatically, that Kelland was wrong. 

Slightly later the flow of letters from Thomson senior switches to encourage his son into the position held by the ailing William Meikleham, Professor of Natural Philosophy at Glasgow University – this project is eventually successful when Meikleham dies and Thomson takes the post in 1846. He retired from his position at Glasgow University in 1899.

William Thomson appears to have been innovative in teaching, introducing the laboratory class into the undergraduate degree, and later writing a textbook of classical physics, Treatise on Natural Philosophy, with his friend P.G. Tait.

Following his undergraduate studies at Cambridge, William goes to Paris, meeting many of the scientific community there at the time and working in the laboratory of Henri Regnault on thermodynamics. In both thermodynamics and electromagnetism Thomson plays a role in the middle age of the topic, not there at the start but not responsible for the final form of the subject. In both thermodynamics and electromagnetism Thomson’s role was in the “formalisation” of the physical models made by others. So he takes the idea of lines of force from Faraday’s electrical studies and makes them mathematical. The point of this exercise is that now the model can be used to make quantitative predictions in complex situations of, for example, the transmission of signals down submarine telegraph wires.

Commercial telegraphy came in to being around 1837, the first transatlantic cable was strung in 1857 – although it only worked briefly, and poorly for a few weeks. The first successful cable was laid in 1866. It’s interesting to compare this to the similarly rapid expansion of the railways in Britain. Thomson played a part from the earliest of the transatlantic cables. Contributing both theoretically and practically – he invented and patented the mirror galvanometer which makes reading weak signals easier.

It’s a cliché to say “X was no stranger to controversy” Thomson had his share – constantly needling geologists over the age of the earth and getting into spats regarding priority of James Joule on the work on inter-convertibility of energy. It sounds like he bears some responsibility for the air of superiority that physicists can sometime display over the other sciences. Although it should be said that he more played second fiddle to the more pugnacious P.G. Tait.

Later in life Thomson struggled to accept Maxwell’s formulation of electromagnetic theory, finding it too abstract – he was only interested in a theory with a tangible physical model beneath it. Maxwell’s theory had this at the start, an ever more complex system of gear wheels, but ultimately he cut loose from it. As an aside, the Maxwell’s equations we know today are very much an invention of Oliver Heaviside who introduced the vector calculus notation which greatly simplifies their appearance, he too cut his teeth on telegraphy.

At one point Lindley laments the fact Lord Kelvin has not had the reputation he deserves since his death. Reputation is a slippery thing, recognition amongst the general public is a fickle and no real guide to anything. Most practicing scientists pay little heed to the history of their subject, fragments are used as decoration for otherwise dull lectures.

It’s difficult to think of modern equivalents of William Thomson in science, his theoretical role is similar to that of Freeman Dyson or Richard Feynman. It’s not widely recognised but Albert Einstein, like Thomson, was active in making patent applications but does not seem to have benefitted financial from his patents. Thomson also plays the role of Victorian projector, such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Projects in the 21st century are no longer so obviously the work of one scientist/engineer/project manager/promoter these roles having generally been split into specialisms. 

I was intrigued to discover that Lindley apparently uses S.P. Thompson’s 1910 biography of Kelvin as his primary source, not mentioning at all the two volume Energy and Empire by Crosbie Smith and M. Norton Wise published in 1989.

Degrees Kelvin provides a useful entry into physics and technology in the 19th century, I am now curious about the rise of electricity and marine compasses!