Tag Archive: history of science

Nov 17 2016

Book review: The Invention of Science by David Wootton

inventionofscienceBack to the history of science with The Invention of Science by David Wootton which covers the period of the Scientific Revolution.

Wootton’s central theme is how language tracked the arrival of what we see as modern science in a period from about 1500 to 1700, and how this modern science was an important thing that has persisted to the present day. I believe he is a little controversial in denying the ubiquity of the Kuhnian paradigm shift and in his dismissal of what he refers to as the postmodern, “word-games” approach to the history of science which sees scientific statements as entirely equivalent to statements of beliefs.This approach is exemplified by Leviathan and the air-pump by Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer which gets several mentions.

Wootton argues contrary to Kuhn that sometimes “paradigm shifts” happen almost silently. He also points out that Kuhn’s science is post-Scientific Revolution. One of the silent revolutions that he cites is the model of the world. “Flat-earth” in no way describes the pre-Colombus model of the world which originated from classical Greek scholarship. In this theoretical context the sphere is revered and the universe is built from the four elements: earth, wind, fire and water. The model for the “earth” is therefore a variety of uncomfortable attempts to superimpose spheres of water and earth. The Ancients got away with this because in Classical times the known world did not cover enough of the earth’s sphere to reveal embarrassing discrepancies between theory and actuality. With Colombus’s “discovery” of America and other expeditions crossing the equator and reaching The Far East over land these elemental sphere models were no longer viable. The new model of the earth which we hold to today entered quietly over the period 1475 to 1550. 

Colombus’s “discovery” also marks one of the key themes for the book, the development of new language to describe the fruits of scientific investigation. Prior to Colombus the idea of an original discovery was poorly expressed in Western European languages, writers had to specifically emphasise that they were the first to find something or somewhere out rather than a having a word to hand that expressed this. Prior to this time, Western European scholarship was very much focused on the “re-discovery” and re-interpretation of the lost wisdom of the Ancients. Words like “fact”,”laws” (of nature), “theories”, “hypotheses”, “experiment” and “evidence” also evolved over this period. This happened because the the world was changing, the printing press had arrived (which changed communication and collaboration entirely). Machines and instruments were being invented, and the application of maths was widening from early forms of banking to surveying and perspective drawing. These words morphed to their modern meanings across the European languages in a loosely coupled manner.

Experimentation is about more than just the crude mechanics of doing the experiment, it is about reporting that work to others so that they can replicate and extend the work. The invention of printing is important in this reporting process. This is why alchemy dies out sometime around the end of the 17th century. Although alchemy has experiments, clearly communicating your experiments to others is not part of the game. Alchemy is not a science, it is mysticism with scientific trappings.

As a sometime practising scientist all of these elements of discovery, facts, evidence, laws, hypotheses and theories are things whose definitions I take for granted. They are very clear to me now, and I know they are shared with other working scientists. What The Invention of Science highlights was that there was a time when these things were not true.

The central section of the book finishes with some thoughts on whether the Industrial Revolution required the Scientific Revolution on which to build. The answer is ultimately “yes”, although the time it takes is considerable. It flows from the work of Denis Papin on a steam digester in the late 17th century to Newcomen’s invention of the steam engine in the early 18th century. Steam engines don’t become ubiquitous until much later in the 18th century. The point here is that Papin’s work is very much in the spirit of a “academic” scientist (he had worked with Robert Boyle), whereas Newcomen sits in the world of industrial engineering and commerce.

I’ve not seen such an analysis of language in the study of the Scientific Revolution before, the author notes that much of this study is made possible by the internet. 

The editor clearly had a permissive view of footnotes, since almost every page has a footnote and more than a few pages are half footnote. The book also has endnotes, and some “afterthoughts”. Initially I found this a bit irritating but some of the footnotes are quite interesting. For example, the Matses tribe in the Amazon include provenance in their verb forms, using the incorrect verb form is seen as a lie. In my day to day work with data this “provenance required” approach is very appealing.

The Invention of Science is very rich, and thought provoking and presents a thesis which I had not seen presented before, although the “facts” of the Scientific Revolution are well known. I’m off to read Leviathan and the air-pump partly on the recommendation of the author of this book.

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.

Sep 21 2015

Book review: The Values of Precision edited by M. Norton Wise

valuesofprecisionThe Values of Precision edited by M. Norton Wise is a collection of essays from the Princeton Workshop in the History of Science held in the early 1990s.

The essays cover the period from the mid-18th century to the early 20th century. The early action is in France and moves to Germany, England and the US as time progresses. The topics vary widely, starting with population censuses, then moving on to measurement standards both linear and electrical, calculating methods and error analysis.

I’ve written some notes on each essay, skip to the end of the bullet points if you want the overview:

  • The first article is about the measurement of population, mainly in pre-revolutionary France. This was spurred by two motivations: firstly, monarchs were increasingly seeing the number of their subjects as a measure of their power and secondly, there was a concern that France was experiencing depopulation. In the 17th century the systematic recording of births, deaths and marriages was mandated by royal direction. In the period after this populations were either estimated from a count of “hearths” or from the number of births. The idea being that you could take either of these indirect measures and multiple them by some factor to get a true measure of population.
  • The second article is by Ken Alder, he of “The Measure of All Things” and is another trip to revolutionary France and their efforts to introduce a metric system of measurement. The revolutionary attempt failed but the system of standards they created prevailed in the middle of the 19th century but not without some effort. Alder highlights the resistance of France to metrification, and also how the revolution bred a will to introduce a rational system based on natural measurements rather than a physical object created by man. He also discusses some of the benefits of the pre-metric system: local control, the ability for workers to take a cut without varying price, connection to effort expended/quality. This last because land was measured in terms of the amount of grain used to seed it or the area one person could harvest in a day – this varies with the quality of the land.
  • Jan Golinski writes on Lavoisier (again from France at the turn of the Revolution) regarding “exactness” and its almost political nature. Lavoisier made much of his exact measurements in the determination of the masses of what are now called hydrogen and oxygen in producing a known mass of water. This caused some controversy since other experimenters of the time saw his claims of exactness in measurement to be mis-used in supporting his theory for chemical reactions. There were reasons to be sceptical of some of his claims, he often cited weighed amounts to more significant figures than were justified by the precision of his measurements and there are signs his recorded measurements are a little too good to be true. These could be seen as the birthing pains of a new way of doing science which didn’t just apply to chemical measurements of the time, but also to surveying and the measurement of population. These days the inappropriateness quoting of more significant figures than are justified by the measurement is drummed into students at an early age.
  • Next we move from France to Germany and a discussion of the method of least squares, and the authority of measurements by Kathryn M. Olesko. Characters such as Legrendre and Laplace had started to put the formal analysis of error and uncertainty in measurement on the map. This work was carried forward by Gauss with the method of least squares, essentially this says that the “true” value of a measurement is that which minimises the squared difference of all the measurements made of that value. It is an idea related to probability, and it is still deeply embedded in how we make measurements today and also how we compare measurement to theory. In common with events in France, the drive for better measurement came in Germany with a drive to standardise weights and measures for the purposes of trade. The action here takes place in the first half of the 19th century.
  • The trek through the 19th century continues with Simon Schaffer’s essay on the work in England and Germany on electrical units with a particular view to establishing whether the speed of light and the speed of propagation of electromagnetic waves were the same. This involved the standardisation of units of electrical resistance. It was work that went on for some time. Interesting from a practicing scientists point of view was the need for the bench scientist and instrument makers to work closely together.
  • The next chapter is a step away from the physical sciences with a look at life insurance and the actuarial profession in the first half of the 19th century. Theodore Porter describes the attitude of this industry to precision and calculation, noting that they fended off attempts to regulate the industry too tightly by arguing that there business could not be reduced to blind calculation. The skill, judgement and character of the actuary was important.
  • The Image of Precision is about Helmholtz’s work on muscle physiology in around 1850, he used an apparatus which showed the extension of a muscle graphically following stimulation, and measured the speed of nerve impulses using similar methods. The graphical method was in some senses less precise than an alternative method but it was a more compelling explanatory tool and provided for better understanding of the phenomena under study.
  • Next up is a discussion of the introduction of so-called “direct-reading” ammeters and voltmeters by Ayrton and Perry in around ~1870. This was an area of some dispute, with physicists claiming that determinations of volts and amps be made by reference to the basic units of length, time and mass. Ayrton and Perry were interested in training electrical engineers whose measurements would be made in environments not conducive to these physicist-preferred measurements. Not conducive in both a technical sense (stray magnetic fields, vibration and so forth) nor in the practical sense (an answer within 1 percent in 10 minutes was far superior to one within 0.5 percent in 2 hours).
  • As we approach the end of the book we learn of Henry Rowland, and his diffraction gratings, made at John Hopkins university. Rowland had toured Europe, and on his return set to making high quality diffraction gratings to measure optical spectra. This is a challenging technical task, to be useful a diffraction grating needs many very closely spaced lines of the same profile. Rowland sent out his diffraction gratings for a nominal price, making no profit, but did not reveal the details of his methods. It took many years for his work to be better, and even longer yet for better diffraction gratings to be available generally.
  • The collection finishes with the construction of mathematical tables, starting with a somewhat philosophical discussion of the limits of calculation but moving onto more pragmatic issues of the calculation and sharing tables. The need for these tables came original with the computationally intensive calculations for determining the longitude by the method of lunar distances. The 19th century saw the growth in mathematical analysis in a range of areas, spreading the need to make mathematical tables. Towards the end of the century machine calculation was used to help build these tables, and do the analysis they supported. Students of my generation will likely just about remember using tables of trigonometric and other functions, these days in my practical work they are entirely replaced by computer calculations done on demand.

There is a lot in here which will speak to those with a training in science, physics in particular. The techniques discussed and the concerns of the day we will recognise in our own training. The essays hold a slight distance from practitioners in this arts but that brings the benefit of a different view. Core to which is the way in which precision in measurement is a social as well as technical affair. To propagate standards of measurement requires the community to build trust in the work of others, this does not happen automatically.

I like this style of presentation, each essay has its own character and interest. The range covered is much larger than one might find in a book length biography, and there is a degree of urgency in the authors getting their key points across in the space allocated.

In this book the various chapters do not overlap in their topics and cover a substantial period in time and space with the editor providing some short linking chapters to tie things together. All in all very well done.

Aug 26 2015

Book Review: Stargazers–Copernicus, Galileo, the Telescope and the Church by Allan Chapman

stargazersIt’s been a while since my last book review here but I’ve just finished reading Stargazers: Copernicus, Galileo, the Telescope and the Church by Allan Chapman.

The book covers the period from the end of the 16th century, the time of Copernicus and Tycho Brahe, to the early 18th century and Bradley’s measurement of stellar aberration passing Galileo, Newton and others on the way. Conceptually this spans the full transition from a time when people believed in a Classical universe with earth at its centre, and stars and planets plastered onto crystal spheres, to the modern view of the solar system with the earth and other planets orbiting the sun.

This development parallels that in Arthur Koestler’s classic book "The Sleepwalkers”, however Chapman’s style is much more readable, his coverage is broader but not so deep. Chapman introduces a wealth of little personal anecdotes and experiments. For instance on visiting Tycho Brahe’s island observatory he recounts a meeting with a local farmer who had in his living room a marked stone from the Brahe’s observatory (which had been dismantled by the locals on Brahe’s death). Brahe was hated by his tenants for his treatment of them, a hate that was handed down through the generations. Illustrations are provided in the author’s own hand, which is surprisingly effective. He discusses his own work in reconstructing historical apparatus and observations.

Astronomy was an active field from well before the start of this period for a couple of reasons: firstly, astrology had been handed down from Classical times as a way of divining the future. To was believed that to improve the accuracy of astrological predictions better data on the locations of heavenly bodies over time was required. Similarly, the Christian Church required accurate astronomical measurement to determine when Easter fell, across increasingly large spans of the Earth.

The period covered by the book marks a time when new technology made increasingly accurate measurements of the heavens possible, and the telescope revealed features such as mountains on the moon, sunspots and the moons of Jupiter visible for the first time. Galileo was a principle protagonist in this revolution.

Amongst scientists there is something of the view that the Catholic Church suppressed scientific progress with Galileo the poster boy for the scientist’s case. Historians of science don’t share this view, and haven’t for quite some time. Looking back on Sleepwalkers, written in 1959 I noted the same thing – the historians view is generally that Galileo brought it on himself in the way he dismissed those that did not share his views in rather offensive terms. Galileo lived in a time when the well-entrenched Classical view of the universe was coming under increased pressure from new observations using new instruments. In some senses it was the collision with the long-held Classical view of the universe which led to his problems, the Church being more committed to this Classical view of the physical universe rather than to anything proposed in Scripture.

The role of the Church in promoting, and fostering science, is something Chapman returns to frequently – emphasising the scientific work that members of the Church did, and also the often good relationships that lay “scientists” of different faiths had with Church authorities.

Chapman introduces some of the lesser known English (and Welsh) contributors to the story. Harriet who made the earliest known sketches of the moon. The Lancashire astronomers, who made the first observations of the transit of Venus. John Wilkins whose meetings were to lead to the foundation of the Royal Society. He also notes the precedent of the Royal College of Physicians, formed in 1518. The novelty of the Royal Society when compared with earlier organisations of similar character was that the Fellows were responsible for new appointments, rather than them being imposed by a patron. This seems to have been an English innovation, repeated in the Oxbridge colleges, and Guilds.

Relating to these English astronomers was the development of precision instruments in England. This seems to have been spurred by the Dissolution of the monasteries. The glut of land, seized by Henry VIII, became available to purchase. The purchase of land meant a requirement for accurate surveying, and legal documents. Hence an industry was born of skilled men wielding high technology to produce maps.

I was distracted by the presence of Martin Durkin in the acknowledgements to this book, he was the architect of “polemical” Channel 4 documentary “The Great Global Warming Swindle”, so it cast doubt in my mind as to whether I should take this book seriously. On reflection Chapman’s position as presented in this book seems respectable, but it is interesting how a short statement in the acknowledgements made me consider this more deeply.

Overall, Stargazers is rather more readable than Sleepwalkers, not quite so single-tracked in it’s defence of the Catholic Church as God’s Philosophers and a different proposition to Fred Watson’s book of the same name, which is all about telescopes.

Jan 20 2015

Book review: Sextant by David Barrie

sextantThe longitude and navigation at sea has been a recurring theme over the last year of my reading. Sextant by David Barrie may be the last in the series. It is subtitled “A Voyage Guided by the Stars and the Men Who Mapped the World’s Oceans”.

Barrie’s book is something of a travelogue, each chapter starts with an extract from his diary on crossing the Atlantic in a small yacht as a (late) teenager in the early seventies. Here he learnt something of celestial navigation. The chapters themselves are a mixture of those on navigational techniques and those on significant voyages. Included in the latter are voyages such of those of Cook and Flinders, Bligh, various French explorers including Bougainville and La Pérouse, Fitzroy’s expeditions in the Beagle and Shackleton’s expedition to the Antarctic. These are primarily voyages from the second half of the 18th century exploring the Pacific coasts.

Celestial navigation relies on being able to measure the location of various bodies such as the sun, moon, Pole star and other stars. Here “location” means the angle between the body and some other point such as the horizon. Such measurements can be used to determine latitude, and in rather more complex manner, longitude. Devices such as the back-staff and cross-staff were in use during the 16th century. During the latter half of the 17th century it became obvious that one method to determine the longitude would be to measure the location of the moon relative to the immobile background of stars, the so-called lunar distance method. To determine the longitude to the precision required by the Longitude Act of 1714 would require those measurements to be made to a high degree of accuracy.

Newton invented a quadrant device somewhat similar to the sextant in the late 17th century but the design was not published until his death in 1742, in the meantime Hadley and Thomas Godfrey made independent inventions. A quadrant is an eighth of a circle segment which allows measurements up to 90 degrees. A sextant subtends a sixth of a circle and allows measurements up to 120 degrees.

The sextant of the title was first made by John Bird in 1757, commissioned by a naval officer who had made the first tests on the lunar distance method for determining the longitude at sea using Tobias Meyer’s lunar distance tables.

Both quadrant and sextant are more sophisticated devices than their cross- and back-staff precursors. They comprise a graduated angular scale and optics to bring the target object and reference object together, and to prevent the user gazing at the sun with an unprotected eye. The design of the sextant changed little since its invention. As a scientist who has worked with optics they look like pieces of modern optical equipment in terms of their materials, finish and mechanisms.

Alongside the sextant the chronometer was the second essential piece of navigational equipment, used to provide the time at a reference location (such as Greenwich) to compare to local time to get the longitude. Chronometers took a while to become a reliable piece of equipment, at the end of Beagles 4 year voyage in 1830 only half of the 22 chronometers were still running well. Shackleton’s mission in 1914 suffered even more, with the final stretch of their voyage to South Georgia using the last working of 24 chronometers. Granted his ship, the Endeavour had been broken up by ice and they had escaped to Elephant Island in a small, open boat! Note the large numbers of chronometers taken on these voyages of exploration.

Barrie is of the more subtle persuasion in the interpretation of the history of the chronometer. John Harrison certainly played a huge part in this story but his chronometers were exquisite, expensive, unique devices*. Larcum Kendall’s K1 chronometer was taken by Cook on his 1769 voyage. Kendall was paid a total of £500 for this chronometer, made as a demonstration that Harrison’s work could be repeated. This cost should be compared to a sum of £2800 which the navy paid for the HMS Endeavour in which the voyage was made!

An amusing aside, when the Ordnance Survey located the Scilly Isles by triangulation in 1797 they discovered its location was 20 miles from that which had previously been assumed. Meaning that prior to their measurement the location of Tahiti was better known through the astronomical observations made by Cook’s mission.

The risks the 18th century explorers ran are pretty mind-boggling. Even if the expedition was not lost – such as that of La Pérouse – losing 25% of the crew was not exceptional. Its reminiscent of the Apollo moon missions, thankfully casualties were remarkably low, but the crews of the earlier missions had a pretty pragmatic view of the serious risks they were running.

This book is different from the others I have read on marine navigation, more relaxed and conversational but with more detail on the nitty-gritty of the process of marine navigation. Perhaps my next reading in this area will be the accounts of some of the French explorers of the late 18th century.

*In the parlance of modern server management Harrison’s chronometers were pets not cattle!

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