Tag Archive: history of science

May 08 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mar 05 2020

Book Review: The Egg & Sperm Race by Matthew Cobb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dec 26 2019

Book review: Higher and Colder by Vanessa Heggie

higher_and_colderHigher and Colder by Vanessa Heggie is a history of extreme physiological research in the later nineteenth and twentieth century. It is on the academic end of the spectrum I read, it is not a tale of individual heroics, although I found it quite gripping.

The action takes place largely in extreme environments such as very high mountains, and the polar regions. There are some references to high temperature environments but these are an aside. One of the themes of the book is the tension between laboratory physiological experiments, such as the barometric chamber work of Bert in 1874, and experiments and experiences in the field. It turns out it is hard to draw useful conclusions on survival in extreme environments from laboratory studies. Much of this work was done to support exploratory expeditions, mountaineering, military applications and more recently athletic achievement. The question is never “Can a human operate at an altitude of over 8000 metres?”, or the like, it is “Can Everest be scaled by a human with or without supplementary oxygen?”. So factors other than the “bare” physiology are also important.

Some of the discussion towards the end o the book regarding death, and morbidity in expeditions to extreme environments brought to mind the long distance marine expeditions of the 18th century. Its not discussed in the book but it seems like these extreme physiology field programmes go beyond simple field research, they are often parts of heroic expeditions to the ends of the earth.

The book opens with a discussion of mountain sickness and whether its cause is purely down to low oxygen or whether other factors are important. One section is titled “Only rotters would use oxygen?” – the idea being that climbing Everest was retarded by a reluctance to use supplementary oxygen. In fact oxygen apparatus only really became practical for climbers in the 1950s, so the reluctance is more to do with technology than honour. The climbing problem is different from a military aircraft where weight is relatively unimportant. Fundamentally there is no short term acclimatisation to altitude. Himalayan populations show some long term adaptations but Andean populations are quite different in terms of evolution scale adaption – populations in the Himalayas have been there much longer. Mentioned towards the end of the book is the fact that humans foetuses spend their time in a low oxygen environment, so these physiological experiments have applications well beneath the mountains and the skies.

The selection of participants into the field, both as experiment and subject, was based on previous experience, gender, class and connections. This means they were almost entirely white and male, particularly those to Antarctica where the US military refused to transport women for a considerable spell. The extreme physiology community is quite close-knit and difficult for outsiders to penetrate, there is a degree of nostalgia and heritage to their discussions of themselves. Although women played a part in missions dating back into the earlier 20th century their presence is hidden, publication culture would typically not name those considered to be assistants. The first woman to overwinter in the British Antarctica base was in 1996.

Native people are similarly elided from discussion although they were parts of a number of experiments and many missions. An interesting vignette: the conventional ergometer which measures human power output was found not to be well-suited to Sherpas since it was based on a bicycle, utterly unfamiliar to a population living in the high Himalayas where bicycles are uncommon. Also the oxygen masks used by Western climbers need to be adapted to suit the differing face shapes of Sherpas. Heggie introduces the idea of thinking of native technology as part of bioprospecting. I was intrigued to learn that “igloo” originally meant something very specific, one of a class of structures from compacted snow, but it was corrupted to mean any building made of compacted snow. Pemmican is another technology drawn from the natives of Arctic lands. These technologies are usually adapted and there is a degree to which they are not adopted until they have been “scientifically proven” by Western scientists.

It turns out that participants in polar expeditions don’t experience much cold – they are two well equipped and often expending a lot of energy. Cold is different to altitude, altitude is relatively un-escapable whilst cold can be mitigated by technologies dating back centuries.

I was broadly familiar with some of the material in this book from reading about attempts on Everest and Antarctic and Arctic expeditions but this work is much more focussed on the experiments than the men. I am contaminated with the knowledge that Heggie has worked with Simon Schaffer and felt that Higher and Colder has something of the style of Leviathan and the Air pump particularly the language around objects and artefacts, and their movement being about communication.

I found this a gentle introduction to the practice of historiography, it is related to the tales of adventure and individual heroism around scaling Everest and reaching the South Pole but quite different in its approach.

May 27 2019

Book review: Matthew Boulton: Selling What All the World Desires by Shena Mason

matthew_boultonMatthew Boulton: Selling what all the World Desires by Shena Mason is a rather sumptuous book featuring a collection of articles and a catalogue of objects relating to Matthew Boulton, organised by Birmingham City Council on the bicentenary of his death in 2009.

Boulton was famous for his Soho Manufactory built a couple of miles from the centre of modern Birmingham. There he started making “toys”, following in the footsteps of his father. At the time “toys” were small metal objects such as buttons, buckles, watch chains and the like for which Birmingham was famous. Over time he brought a high degree of mechanisation and productionisation to the process.

But “toys” were only the start of his business interests, he soon moved into making higher value objects such as vases, candle holders and tableware made from silver, Sheffield plate (silver plated tin) and ormolu (gold gilded bronze or brass), aiming to supply a growing middle class clientele by producing objects at scale with a high degree of mechanisation to reduce cost. For this he cultivated connections in well-to-do society, and employed the best designers.

I was interested to read the article on Picturing Soho by Val Loggie which talks about how the architected design of the factory was essentially part of Boulton’s marketing strategy. The Soho site drew many visitors, it was a feature of the late Enlightenment that facilities such as these attracted visitors from across Europe and America. Boulton even installed tea rooms and a show room to furnish their needs. Although a continuing concern was the risk of industrial espionage which led ultimately to the curtailment of such visits in the early years of the 19th century.

As part of his silver work he campaigned for Birmingham to have its own Assay Office to hallmark silver goods. Previously silver items needed to go to Chester to be assayed and receive a hallmark which was a lengthy journey, costing money and risking damage to items. Gaining an assay office required an act of parliament for which Boulton lobbied in the face of opposition from London silver and goldsmiths. The London case was damaged when a “secret shopper” investigation showed that most silverware passing through the London assay office was below standard, and furthermore they were caught trying to bribe Boulton’s former employees to speak against him. An assay office was granted to Sheffield in the same act.

Boulton also built a mint at Soho, pretty much fully mechanising the process of producing coinage, trade tokens and decorative medals. This work seems to have been one of his more profitable enterprises. Towards the end of the 18th century the government had not minted new copper coinage for quite some time which caused problems because it was often pennies and tuppences that workers needed to buy essentials. Ultimately Boulton was given the contract to mint a large quantity of copper coinage, and was selling minting machinery around the world.

Finally, there was his work on steam engines with James Watt. Watt invented an improvement to the Newcomen steam engine in use at the time which made it much more efficient, in terms of the amount of coal required to produce the same power. Watt also developed engines that produced reliable rotary motion, essentially for driving factory machinery rather than just pumping water out of mines. In the first instance Watt and Boulton acted as consultants, designing engines for specific customers and buying in parts from various suppliers to construct them. They charged a fraction of the cost saving from reduced coal use, which sounds like it was rather difficult to administer. The engine business, they maintained their income by lobbying parliament to extend their patent. Later they built a foundry at Soho which made all of the parts of the engine.

Actually, there was one more thing, Watt and Boulton produced a system for mechanical reproduction of letters and paintings.

Boulton’s businesses were continued after his death by his son, and the son of the James Watt. The silver plate company and foundry lasted longest but by the end of the 19th century they were gone. The Soho Manufactory made it to the dawn of photography but was demolished in 1863. Boulton’s Soho House remains on the site but the rest of the works, and parkland in which they sat have been overtaken by housing. 

In some ways he was the metalworking equivalent of Josiah Wedgewood with whom he was well-acquainted through there membership of The Lunar Society, you can read more about them in Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men. He was also interested in the science of the time.

Many of Boulton’s ventures seem to have been of limited commercial value, they often required significant investment which he raised via loans, and revenue typically fell below expectations.

This is a beautiful book, the articles cover the key parts of Boulton’s work at Soho but it is not a biography. The catalogue, which makes up half the book is worth reading too – the photographs are gorgeous and there are descriptive text boxes which explain the wider context of the objects.

Apr 08 2019

Book review: Empires of Knowledge by Paula Findlen

empires_of_knowledgeMy next review is on Empires of Knowledge: Scientific Networks in the Early Modern World edited by Paula Findlen. Here I find myself venturing a little further into academic history of science than I am entirely comfortable with!

Empires of Knowledge is a collection of essays. Its focus is on networks, and it was stimulated by Stanford’s project on mapping the Republic of Letters. The introduction cites Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, inspiration for the Royal Society but Findlen focuses on the network which brings the knowledge of the world to Bensalem (the location of this fictional Atlantis).

The first chapter is by Robert Morrison, entitled A scholarly intermediary between the Ottoman Empire and Renaissance Europe. It concerns Copernicus and how he potentially was exposed to Arab astronomers whilst at Padua University. More widely it talks about diffusion mechanisms from the Ottoman Empire through Jewish intermediaries to Europe. I felt it could have done with some lists of actors, and network diagrams. I suspect this is why I’m not a historian.

The second chapter is by Findlen and concerns the Jesuits and their network starting in about mid-16th century. The Jesuits saw scientific knowledge as a supplement to their missionary work. This worked two ways, sharing knowledge from Western Europe to the far flung places they visited was a benefit in their missionary work but they also saw collecting new scientific knowledge and bringing back to Rome as important too. The chapter also talks about some of the travails of trying to coordinate observations across large distances with sometimes inexpert collaborators. The simple passage of a letter from Japan to Europe could take 3 or 4 years. “Scientists” outside the Jesuits saw the potential of this organisation for gathering knowledge. It struck me that the Jesuits rose before New Atlantis was written and before the Royal Society and the Academie des Science in France were founded, these could be seen as secular equivalents.

The third chapter continues the Jesuit theme discussing the Ignatian Tree by Marcelo Aranda, an illustration in Athanasius Kircher’s book “The Great Art of Light and Shadow” which showed the 466 missions of the Jesuit church in 1646 as a tree. Also included were sundials which showed their location as determined by lunar eclipse measurements – a method for finding the longitude but only relevant for fixed locations. Determining the date of Easter was an astronomical problem which had been partly resolved by reform of the calendar but in the 17th century there was some risk of celebrating on the wrong day due to the effect of time zones.

Next up is a chapter by Carol Pal on Samuel Hartlib, called The Early Modern Information Factory: How Samuel Hartlib turned correspondence into knowledge. Hartlib was active in the years just before the Royal Society was founded and kept an expansive correspondence network. He republished within that network but also made work available in print (sometimes to the ire of his correspondents). He left approximately 5000 letters in his archive currently at the University of Sheffield and it is likely that amount is doubled if letters from him in other archives are considered. This seems to be typical of the size of the correspondence of such actors. In a time before scientific journals were published his imprimatur was seen as a sign of quality. The chapter also discusses how such men usually employed scribes to keep up with the level of correspondence, in the absence of photocopiers or word processors.

There’s a certain repetitiveness in my paragraphs, this next one is on the chapter by Iordan Avramov on “Letters and questionnaires: The correspondence of Henry Oldenburg and the early Royal Society of London’s Inquiries for Natural History”! Inquiries for Natural History were essentially surveys containing questions on all manner of topics sent out to correspondents. These were used to elicit information, their consistency allowed for information to be verified and monitored over time, and their very existence provided correspondents with a framework in which to reply – they were not faced with a blank page. The Inquiries also had the function of expanding Oldenburg’s network. He could send out a questionnaire to one of his existing correspondents and ask that they forward it on to someone else if they could not reply.

Ingenuous investigators by Ivano Dal Prete, a vignette on the activities of Antonio Vallisneri (1661-1730) who was a member of the Republic of Letters but corresponded mainly with local contacts in Northern Italy. The point Dal Prete is making here is that although distant lands get the headlines, the Republic of Letters was fractal, what was visible on a global scale was also visible locally. In the late 17th century even Europe was to some degree terra incognita. Del Prate reports that Vallisneri never visited a local (17 miles away) fossil location, the travel was hard in the mountainous area and the natives were hostile.

Corresponding in war and peace by Elise Lipkowitz covers the communications of Joseph Banks and Charles Blagdon during the Peace of Amiens in 1812/13, a brief period in which France and England were not fully at war. This includes some numerical work the volume of transactions. The Peace was fairly tense and the character of the correspondence is cagey compared to earlier periods. Much of the correspondence is between Banks and Blagdon, who was in Paris for the whole of the Peace.

Giant bones and the Taunton stone by Lydia Barnett is about the reception in London by the Royal Society of communications from Cotton Mather in 1712 regarding fossil bones, now believed to be of mastadons, found in New York state and the “Taunton Stone” an inscribed stone discovered in Massachusetts. Mather spent much space in his reports analysing the fossils to a cool reception by the Royal Society – they were much more interested in getting hold of the specimens for their own inspection and interpretation. The Taunton Stone, on which Mather had written much less, raised much more interest. Illustrations (although poor) allowed them to make their own interpretations, and gave access to a history of North America. This was to be used to rationalise the colonization of the area, and the persecution of the native Americans.

The tarot of Yu the great by Alexander Statman reports on investigations into China as the source of all ancient knowledge following an appreciation of the length of its recorded history.

Spaces of circulation and empires of knowledge by Kapil Raj talks about the importance of local knowledge, and local experts in India. Both in William Jones work on comparative linguistics and also James Rennell’s mapping of India. Raj prefers to talk about “spaces of circulation” rather than networks. This seems to be based on an assumption that links in a network must either exist or not exist, my more mathematical view of networks is that links can have weights which may indicate distance or frequency of contact, or any number of attributes.

Recentering centres of calculation by Matthew Sargent continues this theme with a discussion of Van Rheede’s Hortus Malabaricus, a volume on the plants of the Far East. It highlights the varied loci of activity, the book was written mainly in the Far East but published in Amsterdam. Plant samples, and drawings of plants could circulate, travelling the networks of knowledge, without carrying with them the context in which they were collected or the native uses of a plant.

The Atlantic World Medical Complex by Londa Schiebinger traces the path of “bois fer” in a treatment for yaws, a tropical infection. The story brings together medicine as practised in Europe, Africa and the Americas and the difficulties in tracing the contributions made by slaves and native Americans given their position. It also highlights how difficult it can be to be sure of the identity of plants such as “bois fer” at such great separation in time – particularly when the participants at the time were not clear.  

The final chapter is Semedo’s Sixteen Secrets by Benjamin Breen, this refers to the medical works of João Curvo Semedo (1635-1719), a Portuguese physician. He collected the elements of medical preparations from around the world in particular those areas which had been under Portuguese writings. The interesting side to his writing is that although much of the material he recommended was fro outside Europe, the authorities he cited for their use were Western European.  

The book finishes with epilogues by three different authors who do something similar to what I have done here. The format of the book, a set of 20 page chapters, helped me along. Each presents a single thesis, and if I didn’t get along with the author’s style the next chapter came up soon enough. I’m glad I read it but I’m going for something a bit easier next!

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