Tag Archive: history of science

Sep 30 2017

Book review: Pandora’s Breeches by Patricia Fara

pandoraInspired by Claire Brock’s biography of Caroline Herschel I found Pandora’s Breeches by Patricia Fara which is a broader survey of women in science during the enlightenment – from around 1500 to 1800.

Fara is interested not only in the people but also the methodology of history. Early on in the book she lays out a manifesto for a better history that doesn’t seek lonely heroes, as is often the case in history of science books. That’s to say her aim is not to simply replace the men in a normal scientific biography with women. As inspiration she cites books like Jenny Uglow’s Lunar Men which is an ensemble of biographies covering several people – I approve of this approach!

The chapter headings are pairings of woman and man, for example, “Anne Conway / Gottfried Leibniz”, at first sight this seems wrong. Surely this is a book about women in science, why tie each of them to a man? But actually it fits with the logic of the book, these women did not operate in isolation but neither did their male counterparts. Their male counterparts benefited from the more or less formal community of “scientists”, and those that had gone before them. But those male counterparts also benefitted from the practical support of their wives, daughters, sisters, other family members and friends. This book shows that practical support was not simply “she made him dinner so he didn’t have to”, it was in correspondence and the exchange of ideas, it was in the practicalities of running a laboratory at home, it was in the translation and explanation of scientific ideas and in the salon. To this group of women should also be added the invisible horde of male helpers, workmen and assistants who also go largely unmentioned. 

The book starts by considering how nature has often been represented as a woman, whose intimate parts are accessed, or unveiled, or probed by scientists (usually men). In engravings from the Enlightenment period nature is often represented by a female form. This is not a framing that has disappeared, this quote by a geologist is from 1980: “Her flanks are shuddering… we don’t know of her intentions. Scientists haven’t been able to probe her deeply enough with their instruments”.

This may seem a harmless piece of flowery prose with more than a hint of sexual innuendo but it should be read in a context of a stream of scandals, at the very least in the US, where senior male scientists have acted inappropriately towards women at universities. Francis Bacon, very much the father of the modern scientific method, explicitly rejected women from his new science. A lead followed by the Royal Society who accepted men regardless of nationality and religion but could not abide women.

The book is divided thematically, the first few chapters are on aristocratic women and how they corresponded with and nurtured men who are now far more widely known. This was part of a system of scientific endeavour which was very different from that found today. There was no profession, only the sponsorship of monarchs and the wealthy. Fara discusses Elisabeth of Bohemia, and how she pushed Descartes to explain his ideas fully and Émilie du Châtelet who lived with Voltaire, conducting her own experiments and translating Newton’s Principia, although “translate” underplays greatly her work. This network was known as the Republic of Letters, and Fara highlights how women played a part in it.

The next theme is on women and science in domestics settings. Prior to the 19th century, science took place in the home which was typically managed by the women of the house. Science was an all consuming passion which inevitably brought in other members of the household. Marie Paulze Lavoisier was the wife of Antoine Lavoisier and was clearly deeply involved in his chemical experimentation, she is shown recording the results of experiments in a drawing of the time and was also responsible for highly detailed diagrams of the equipment used in their laboratory. As well as this she arranging for the publication of his work after he was executed during the French Revolution.

The women in Pandora’s Breeches were, in general, heavily engaged in the scientific endeavour. That is to say they did the things they did because they wanted to not because they had been dragged in by their men folk. This struck me particularly in the case of Elisabetha Hevelius who went out of her way to marry the much older, widowed Johannes a merchant and brewer with a substantial rooftop observatory, driven by her passion for astronomy. Priscilla Wakefield, who wrote Introduction to Botany along with 16 other textbooks, also falls into this class. She wrote, quite deliberately, for a large audience with a view to earning money from her writing.

The book finishes with Mary Shelley and Victor Frankenstein. Frankenstein is about how science fits into the wider world. Here Fara highlights that these women of 200 years and more ago did not have the same aims as feminists today, education for women was not generally promoted as a route to equality rather a way by which women could become more useful and pleasing to their families.  

Throughout the book Fara highlights that these women are just those for which some written record remains, because of the prevailing culture of the time discoveries which were in truth joint efforts were written down solely to the “great man of science”.

This book is definitely worth reading, it brings to light different facets of the development of science and it is highly readable.

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.

Aug 01 2017

Book review: Inventing Temperature by Hasok Chang

inventing_temperatureMy next read is more academic in character, Inventing Temperature: Measurement and Scientific Progress by Hasok Chang. As an undergraduate chemical physics student, temperature was important to me. On the chemistry side of the equation, increasing the temperature of a reaction by 10 degrees doubles its rate. Statistical mechanics forms the core of chemical physics, and this is very much about temperature and equilibrium. In a laser, light is emitted when population inversion is achieved which some describe as negative temperature. It’s fair to say that measuring temperature is one of the core activities of any physical scientist, even if all you are trying to do is keep your experiment at a fixed temperature.

The book starts with a discussion of the fixed points used in thermometry. For the familiar Celsius temperature scale these are (crudely) the melting point of ice and the boiling point of water. The temperature difference between these two fixed points is divided into 100 equal divisions, and the scale can be extrapolated above and below these fixed points.

But this isn’t so easy, it isn’t necessarily a given that ice always melts and water always boils at the same temperature – superheating and supercooling are things that will dog you, particularly if you take great care with your experiments! In a theoretical sense we now know that melting and boiling happen at fixed temperatures under fixed conditions. Experimentally exactly how you set your water boiling and your ice melting can change the temperature at which they appear to melt or boil. In the early days of temperature measurement these questions were all consuming and took many years to resolve.

Another question is “what does it mean to measure temperature"?”. Chang proposes a Principle of respect in the development of measurement and also epistemic iteration. That is to say that the development of the measurement of temperature is guided – respects – our perception of temperature but is not dominated by it. Sometimes our perception of temperature is wrong, epistemic iteration allows us to correct that perception or at least make our measurement correct. If you’d like an example of an incorrect temperature perception try testing the same water having run your hand under hot and cold taps – we perceive a different temperature even when there is no difference.

The next step in the process of measuring temperature is trying to make a linear scale which does not depend on the precise nature of the thermometer you use. This is difficult to achieve without having a clear idea of what temperature is. Linked to this is the problem of what the best “working fluid” is for your thermometer – although we are familiar with mercury and alcohol thermometers, from a scientific point of view “air thermometers” are the best behaved. To a 20th century physicist this is unsurprising but in the late 18th and early 19th century this was not obvious. Furthermore, air was more difficult to work with.

After considering the problem of the linearity of the temperature scale Chang turns to temperatures far above and below the fixed points of the scale, below where mercury freezes and above where glass melts. The challenge at low temperatures was attaining low temperatures, the challenge at high temperatures was finding any sort of device that could survive and keep working at high temperatures. For a long time a pyrometer invented by Josiah Wedgewood was used which relied on measuring the shrinkage of clay pellets as a measure of temperature. Joining this temperature scale to one measured at lower temperatures with conventional thermometers was hard.

Finishing the specific sections on measuring temperature is a chapter on theoretical considerations, focusing on the work of Joule and Thomson. Who established an absolute temperature scale, and under what circumstances a gas could be used to measure such a scale.  Epistemic iteration plays a part here as the combatants need to find a concrete system to demonstrate an abstract principle, and show that their concrete system is close to being abstract!

The book ends with two chapters on more general matters in the history and philosophy of science. The first of these is on Chang’s view of how science progresses. The second is on what Chang calls “complementary science”, how the history and philosophy of science could lead to an increase in scientific knowledge. In my view scientific progress would likely be improved if students were taught better in the history of their subject.

I found this book fascinating, as far as I can recall I came across a much abbreviated form of some of this work during my A-levels when I wasn’t really able to appreciate the scale of the challenge in the now simple act of measuring temperature. Once at university measuring temperature was a given but I gained a more sophisticated understanding of what temperature meant – an understanding that was based on theories developed in the late 19th century.

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.

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