Tag Archive: history of science

Aug 11 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jul 21 2018

Book review: Sentimental Savants by Meghan K. Roberts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jun 27 2018

Book review: The Devil’s Doctor by Philip Ball

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mar 18 2018

Book review: The Philosophical Breakfast Club by Laura J. Snyder

breakfastThe Philosophical Breakfast Club by Laura J. Snyder is an ensemble biography of William Whewell (pronounced: who-ell), Charles Babbage, Richard Jones and John Herschel who were all born towards the end of the 18th century and died in the later half of the 19th century. Their joint project was the professionalisation of science.

The pattern for their reform was Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis published in 1626 which fictionalised a government-funded science institution whose work was for the public good, and whose philosophical basis was the systematic collection of facts, including experimentation, from which scientific theories would be gleaned by induction. As such they follow in the footsteps of the founding fathers of the Royal Society who also took Bacon as their guiding light.

By the earl years of the 19th century the Royal Society had drifted in its purpose since its founding, it was more a gentlemen’s dining club than a scientific society with your position in society a more important factor than your scientific achievements in gaining entry.

Prior to reading this book I recognised the names of Whewell, famous for coining the term “scientist”, Herschel and Babbage – the former the son of William Herschel, the astronomer, the latter the inventor of the Difference Engine. I also knew that Herschel and Babbage had been involved in attempts to reform the Royal Society.

Richard Jones was unknown to me. His contributions were in the foundations, or at least building, of the field of economics. In particular he proposed an economics based on induction, that is to say one should go out and collect facts about the economy and from that point infer rules about the operation of economies from the data. The alternative is to hypothesis some simple rules, and elaborate the consequences of those rules – this is known as deduction. In economics Ricardo and Malthus had been early proponents of this deductive method. Jones went on to become one of the commissioners under the Tithe Commutation Act 1836 which converted the payments in kind of the old tithe system into what was effectively a local tax.

Babbage, Jones and Herschel all came from moderately wealthy backgrounds for whom the path to Cambridge University was relatively smooth. Whewell, on the other hand, was the son of a carpenter which although a respectable trade would not fund attendance at the university. Whewell was educated at a grammar school in Lancaster, his home town, as a result of being spotted by the local gentry who also smoothed his path into Cambridge. This appears to be the route by which the lower middle class entered university – chance encounters.

The four men met at Cambridge University where they formed the Philosophical Breakfast Club. It was at a time when gathering together and discussing politics was seen as borderline seditious. It was not long after the French revolution and the Great Reform Act was yet to come. They corresponded throughout the rest of their lives but there is no feeling from the book that their collaboration to change the face of science was at all formal (or even subject to an overall plan).

At Cambridge Babbage and Whewell were responsible for driving the use of Leibniz’s notation for calculus, in place of Newton’s notation to which the university had adhered for some time. Leibniz’s notation is the one in use today, generally it is seen as clearer than the Newtonian version and more amenable to extension.

Babbage post-Cambridge started work on mechanical computing, managing to extract large quantities of money from the government for this work, exceptional at the time, although he did not deliver a working device. The first Difference Engine was designed to calculate mathematical tables. The later Analytical Engine was very much like modern computers in its architecture. Neither of these devices were ever fully constructed. Babbage could best be described as a mathematician which put him into some conflict with others in the Breakfast Club since mathematics is rather more deductive than inductive in its basis. Later in his life he seems to have become involved in codebreaking, quite possibly for the government, although the evidence for this is circumstantial.

Babbage also led a ferocious attack on the Royal Society in his book Reflections on the decline of science in England. The British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) followed on from this although Babbage, Herschel and Whewell did not attend its first meeting. The BAAS annual meetings became rather large, and there was muttering at the time about the attendees penchant for fine dining. Unlike the Royal Society, it was open to all, even women! I was interested to read about the foundation of my own professional society, the Royal Statistical Society. It started as a section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science where it proved contentious because it was concerned in the collection and analysis of social data which surely leads to politics. Babbage and Jones set up the London Statistical Society which was to become the Royal Statistical Society.

After Cambridge Herschel spent some time in South Africa measuring the location of stars in the southern skies, following on the family business. He became president of the Royal Astronomical Society and published several books on astronomy as well as star catalogues. As well as this he was involved in the development of photography, he was an enthusiastic chemical experimenter and appears to have guided Henry Fox Talbot in fixing his early photographic images.

Whewell remained at Cambridge University for the rest of his life, where he later became the Master of Trinity College. As well as his efforts in changing the teaching of calculus he introduced the Natural Sciences Tripos (parts of which I have taught). His publications were mainly in the history and philosophy of science. He was involved in some scientific endeavours – the measurement and analysis of the tides, for example. Although he coined the term “scientist” in 1833 it wasn’t to gain much currency until much later in the century.

Snyder identifies the period 1820-70 as one where there was a great transition in science from being a gentleman’s hobby to a (sort of) mass participation activity with at least some regard for practical application, a defined career path at least for a few and some more regular government funding.

I found The Philosophical Breakfast Club very readable. It covers a period of great transition in science in the UK, and makes a nice companion to Henrietta Heald’s biography of William Armstrong.

Feb 10 2018

Book review: William Armstrong–Magician of the North by Henrietta Heald

A return to industrial history with armstrongWilliam Armstrong: Magician of the North by Henrietta Armstrong. Armstrong was a 19th century industrialist who spent his life in the north-east of England around Newcastle. His great industrial innovation was the introduction of hydraulic power to cranes and the like. His great wealth, and honours (a knighthood and then a baronetcy) derived from his work in the invention and sale of armaments principally artillery and ships. His home, Cragside near Rothbury some 30 miles north of Newcastle upon Tyne, was the first to feature electric lighting amongst many other technical innovations.

Armstrong was a contemporary of Robert Stephenson, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Joseph Whitworth – they were all born near the beginning of the 19th century, Armstrong dying in 1900 outlasted them all with Brunel and Robert Stephenson dying in 1859.

Armstrong was born in 1910 his parents started him on a career in the law. However, he had always been fascinated by water. This led to his realisation that the power that could be extracted from a head of water in a sealed system. A water wheel extracts energy from water falling the height of the wheel, a matter of a few metres. A sealed iron pipe, such as could now be manufactured allowed you to capture the energy from a fall of tens of metres or more. In Newcastle upon Tyne the local landscape could provide this head of pressure but with a little ingenuity the head of pressure could be created with a steam engine or other mechanical means. This energy could be used to drive all manner of machinery, Armstrong initially used it to power cranes, and lock gates, to be used in docks and the many factories springing up around the country. Ultimately his hydraulic mechanisms drove London’s Tower Bridge.

In the aftermath of the Crimean War, Armstrong switched his attention to building artillery. During the Crimean War the British artillery was found wanting in terms of accuracy, destructive power and firing rate. His innovations were to move from cannonballs to shells (shaped like bullets), and from muzzle loading to breech loading. He gave up the patents for his artillery pieces to the government but made a fair business on them. His activities with ordnance led to his knighthood and baronetcy although ultimately he withdraw from the close relationship with the British government in armaments as a result of political manoeuvrings by competitors.

The manufacture of artillery led to the manufacture of warships, which incidentally also carried the artillery. The Japanese Navy were particularly important.

He was a leading light of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne (Lit & Phil), and contributed to founding what is now Newcastle University. Late in his life, in 1897, he published Electric movement in air and water based on his experiments and featuring cutting-edge photographs of the phenomena he described. From a scientific point of view, Armstrong is not a name you will hear in physics classrooms (at any level) today – I don’t know if the same holds for his engineering innovations. Also late in his life he bought Bamburgh Castle, and spent a fair amount of money refurbishing it.

Magician of the North is a somewhat sympathetic view of Armstrong, along the lines of Man of Iron by Julian Glover about Thomas Telford. This contrasts with Samuel Smiles biography of George Stephenson and Rolt’s of Brunel which are much more effusive about their subjects. The Armstrong’s arms trading is discussed in some detail, it seems the company sailed somewhat close to the wind legally in supplying both sides in the American Civil War. A second blemish on Armstrong’s reputation came from industrial disputes with his, and other workers on the Tyne, asking for shorting working hours. That said, he was clearly a pillar of the Newcastle and north eastern community and highly regarded by most of the people most of the time. Many buildings in Newcastle bore his name as a result of his donations both whilst he was a live and after he died.

As usual the author of this biography bemoans the limited attention their subject has received. In the case of Armstrong they put this down to his extensive involvement in the arms trade which, never the most popular, was to fall further out of favour following the Great War. I’ve never seen a quantitative analysis of what makes the right amount of attention for figures in the history of science and technology.

William Armstrong died in 1900, after his death his company went into a slow decline. The Great War led to a distaste for the arms trade, and then came the Great Depression. With Armstrong gone there was no strong, capable leader for the company. The Armstrong name lived on in various spin off companies such as Armstrong Siddeley and various amalgamations with Whitworths and Vickers.

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