Tag: History

The Presidents of the Royal Society (reprise)

In my previous post I described how I downloaded and played with the data on the fellows of the Royal Society, including a plot of the presidents of the society and their terms of office. I was a bit unhappy with this plot, I felt like it could be a bit more interactive. So I’ve been busy. The plot below shows you who was in office when you wave your mouse over it, and highlights their term. On the face of it this looks like I’ve done very little, but it took me six hours of playing with Protovis (a Javascript visualization library) top achieve this! You can do lots of very neat things with Protovis, and having done it one visualisation it should be easier to do the next one.

The Royal Society and the data monkey

This year finds the Royal Society celebrating its 350th anniversary. The Royal Society is Britain’s national academy of science, one of the first of such societies to be founded in Europe. My brief investigations suggest that only the Italian Accademia dei Linceis and the German Academy of Sciences are older, and then only by a relatively small margin. The goals of the Royal Society were to report on the experiments of its members and communicate with like-minded fellows across Europe.

The Gentleman Administrator is planning some historical blogging on the Royal Society this year, starting with this post on the founding of the society and the role that Charles II played in it. On the face of it this post is about the history of the Royal Society, but in truth it says more about me as a data monkey than it does about the Royal Society. I shall explain.

The Royal Society supply a list of previous members as a pair of PDF format files, these contain each fellow of the Royal Society with their election date, their membership type and, for some, the dates of their birth and death. The PDF is formatted in a standard way suggesting to me that it could be read by a computer and the data therein analysed. I suspect there is an easier way to do this: ask the Royal Society whether they can supply the data in a form more amenable to analysis such as a spreadsheet or a database. But where’s the fun in that?

As an experimental physicist, getting data in various formats into computer programs for further analysis is what I do. This arises when I want to apply an analysis to data beyond that which the manufacturer of the appropriate instrument supplies in their own software, when I get data from custom-built equipment, when I trawl up data from other sources. I received a polite “cease and desist” message at work after I successfully worked out how to extract the text of internal reports from the reports database, they shouldn’t have said it couldn’t be done! I will save you the gory details of exactly how I’ve gone about extracting the data from the Royal Society lists, suffice to say I enjoyed it.

First up, we can identify the Presidents of the Royal Society, and their terms of office from the PDF files – this information is in the name entry for each of them. We can look this data up too). I’ve plotted these below in a manner reminiscent of the displays of the earth’s magnetic field reversal, each coloured stripe represents a presidency, and the colours alternate for clarity. The width of the stripe shows you how long each was president:

In the earlier years of the Royal Society’s history the Presidential term varied quite considerably: Sir Isaac Newton served for 24 years (1703-1727), and Sir Joseph Banks for 42 years (1778-1820). Since 1870 the period of the office seems to have been fixed at 5 years.

Next, we can work out the size of the fellowship in any particular year, basically we go through each fellow in the membership list and see when they were elected to the society and when they died: between these two years they were members. These data are plotted below:

We can see that membership in the early years of the 19th century started to rise significantly but then after 1850 it started to fall again.

This fits in with historical records, in the earlier years of the 19th century some younger fellows pointed out that the Royal Society was starting to turn into a fancy dining club and that most of the fellows had published very little, in particular Charles Babbage published Reflections on the decline of Science in England, and on some of its causes. Wheels ground slowly but finally, in 1846, a committee was set up to consider the charter of Society and how to curb its ever growing membership. I’ve not found the date on which the committee reported but subsequent to this date, admission to the society was much more strictly controlled. Election to the Royal Society is still a mark of a scientist a little above the ordinary.

The data on birth and death dates starts getting sparse after about 1950, presumably since many of the fellows are still alive and were reluctant to reveal their ages. Doing analysis like this starts to reveal the odd glitch in the data. For example,Christfried Kirch appears to have died two years before being elected. At the moment I’m not handling uncertainty in dates very well, and I learnt that the letters “fl” before a date range indicate that and individual “flourished” in that period, which is nice.

If anyone is interested in further data in this area, then please let me know in the comments below. I intend adding further data to the set (i.e. hunting down birth and death dates) and if there is an analysis you think might be useful then I’m willing to give it a try. I’ve uploaded the basic data to Google Docs.

The illustration at the top of this piece is from the frontspiece of William Sprat’s The History of the Royal Society of London, for the Improving of Natural Knowledge, published in 1722.

And the winner is…

I thought I’d write about Nobel Prizes and rewards in science. Long ago I had an illuminating discussion about the subject with someone in publishing, I believe it was the night we were ineptly making Tequila Sunrises and drinking the mistakes so some of the recollections are a bit hazy. The core of the argument was around prestige and cash, my position was that the scientific prestige of the Nobel Prize could not be matched with any cash reward and that it was the Nobel Prize that I’d go for, over the cash, any time. My publishing friend had serious trouble understanding this position.

Despite this I’m ambivalent about the Nobel Prizes, it’s a nice annual event that brings science a little up the news agenda and its always interesting to spot the Nobel Prize winners in your department (to be honest this isn’t much of a game for most people, whilst I was at the Department of Physics in Cambridge there were two Nobel Prize winners in physics still attending: Brian Josephson and Neville Mott). Reading down the list of Nobel laureates in Physics, about two thirds are household names for any physicist whilst the remaining third are only recognised in their own sub-fields. One per year globally is an awfully thin sprinkling for any meaningful recognition of talent.

There are anomalies: Rosalind Franklin potentially missed out on a share in the 1962 award for the Nobel Prize in Physiology for “… discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material”, this is the award to Crick, Watson and Wilkins for the discovery of DNA. She had died at the age of 37, and Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously. Jocelyn Bell Burnell was not awarded for her part in the discovery of pulsars. In fact wikipedia has a whole page of Nobel Prize controversies. Any award of this type must ultimately be subjective, and given the further constrains of the prize rules, a degree of controversy is inevitable.

Perhaps more pernicious is the idea that discoveries are made by three people or fewer. Isaac Newton said “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”: scientific discoveries make use of the discoveries that have come before, and these days discoveries may be made by the collaboration of very large groups of people.

I’ve never had the feeling, as a scientist, of flocking around an individual, rather more of flocking around an idea that has been developed by a number of individuals. You never find scientists in groups asking “What would Einstein do?”. You rarely find scientists making references to “the school of X”, where X is some famous scientist. There are no gurus in science.

Practically speaking I believe that my contribution to science in future years will be considered exceedingly minor; epsilon as numerical analysts would call it: the smallest thing you can have without being zero. For me the reward in science has always been the thrill of personal discovery, a sudden realisation that you have learnt just a little more about the way things work, something that no one else knows.  The desire that other people recognise that only comes later, and in the first instance the thrill is in showing the neat thing you have found (not your role in the discovery).

In truth I’d do science for no payment, and I think it’s true to say most scientists would say the same. Before my employer gets excited by this revelation, I should point out that I charge for attendance at meetings and the amount of money you pay me to interact with various poorly designed IT systems is no where near enough! Similarly, as an academic, I required payment to write grant applications, attend examiners meetings and so forth.

And to end with my favourite Tom Lehrer Nobel Prize quote: “Political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.”

Book review: The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes

I thought I would give book reviewing a go, this last week we have been holidaying which means I managed a solid chunk of reading, seated on the balcony of our hotel (see picture*). An ulterior motive is that, casting an eye across my bookshelves, there are interesting books which I have read of whose contents I have no memory. So in this post I hope to remind a future me of what I have read.

The subject of my review is “The Age of Wonder” by Richard Holmes. This is a book on a subset of scientists active in England around 1800. As I have mentioned before I am not up to the reading of original sources required of historians, but it doesn’t mean I’m not interested.

A central figure in this book is Sir Joseph Banks, who warrants a chapter of his own covering his round the world trip with Captain Cook, focussing mainly on his time in Tahiti. He travelled at his own, considerable, expense as the voyage’s lead naturalist. The attrition for the whole journey was terrible, with half the crew and four of the eight man nature team dying. The voyage was led by the Admiralty with a contribution of £4000 from the Royal Society to observe the transit of Venus from Tahiti. After this journey Banks appears to have acted far more as an administrator and courtier than a personal adventurer, perhaps understandably. He also went on to become the President of the Royal Society and was heavily involved in developing the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew.

William Herschel, and his sister Caroline, lead in two chapters. In the first instance we find Herschel discovering Uranus, using the rather fine telescopes he had made for himself. He is “discovered” by a fellow of the Royal Society viewing the stars in the street outside his house in Bath. The book reveals a nicer side to Nevil Maskelyne, the Astronomer Royal who has received a poor press through his treatment of John Harrison. Caroline Herschel, who discovered a number of comets in her own right was recognised for it, in part, through his support.

In a second chapter William Herschel’s, with Caroline, commission a 40 foot telescope, using a “grant” from King George III totalling £4,000. Converting this into a modern equivalent is a complex process since there really isn’t a single answer. According to the National Archive currency converter this is equivalent to about £130,000 in modern money. The Astronomer Royal was then earning £300 per annum, if we scale a modern professors salary (£60k) in a similar fashion then we get a figure of £780k. Other calculations give us figures in the low millions, which is actually not that large: many university labs around the country will contain single items valued in excess of £1million and most will probably host £1million worth of equipment in total. Ultimately the 40ft telescope did not make a huge scientific impact, being rather difficult to use, however Herschel was instrumental in discovering “Deep space”, that’s to say the appreciation of the vastness of the universe.

There is an interlude on balloonists which stands a little free from the rest of the book, both hot-air balloons and hydrogen balloons were invented at roughly the same time. One enterprising soul, Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier, bolted the two devices together but came to a sticky end as the fire required to heat the hot air balloon was somewhat incompatible with the flammable hydrogen balloon. The balloonists were broadly showmen and adventurers but their activities had an air of futility to them. Although the leap into the air was significant, ultimately the lack of control in passive balloons limited their applications.

Humphrey Davy makes three appearances, in the first we see some of his early scientific life in Bristol working on various gases at Thomas Beddoes Pneumatic Institute in Bristol. Here, amongst other things, he seems to have entrenched his scientific methodology and experimented on self and others with nitrous oxide (laughing gas). In a later chapter he appears to design his miner’s safety lamp – a lamp which would burn safely in mines where methane is present. He comes over in this chapter as a rather arrogant character, a little unscrupulous in claiming the credit for the discovery of iodine and rather tardy in his acknowledgement of the support he received from Michael Faraday in his work.

There is a chapter on Mungo Park who, apart from his name, just didn’t capture my imagination. He made a start on the exploration of inner West Africa sponsored by Banks via the Africa Association. To my mind he was ill on arrival then died in transit, which didn’t seem to make much of a story.

A chapter entitled “Dr Frankenstein and the Soul” starts with a discussion of Fanny Burney’s mastectomy conducted without anaesthetic, which she described in quite terrible detail in a letter to her sister. This leads into Vitalism and the medical experiments of the day, some of them quite horrific, which fed into Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”. There is some discussion of the interaction between various poets of the time, Byron, Shelley, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats and the scientists. In a way it seems that it was a time before the two cultures that C.P Snow described.

The final chapter covers young turks rising up against the fuddy-duddys at the Royal Society and forming their own organisation – The British Association for the Advancement of Science.

All in all a very fine read, it seems to fit with Lisa Jardine’s book “Ingenious Pursuits” which covers an earlier period in the history of English science, from around the middle of the 17th century to the early years of the 18th, and Jenny Uglow’s “The Lunar Men” which covers the period 1730-1810 which is a little before the period covered in “The Age of Wonder” and is interested in particular in the members of the Lunar Society.

I’m now looking for a biography of Sir Joseph Banks, a more complete history of the Royal Society and I feel like I should be exploring some of the other European scientific societies of the period such as the French Académie des sciences.

*The picture is cheating a little, the featured volume is “The Illustrated Natural History of Selborne” by Gilbert White, who crosses paths with Sir Joseph Banks. This was part of The Inelegant Gardener’s reading, which I borrowed.

The past is a foreign country

I’ve been hanging out with historians recently (both online and in real life), so it got me thinking about how scientists treat history. The 150th anniversary of the publication of “On the Origin of Species” is coming up too, so it seemed like a good time to write this post.

My impression is that historians are about the reading of contemporary material, and drawing conclusions from that material; a realisation I came to writing this is that historians seem to have the same sense of wonder and passion for historical minutiae as I have for nature and science. I remember talking to a historian of science who was working on an original manuscript of some important scientific work, it quickly become clear that this was much more exciting for her than me. To me the exciting thing was the theory presented in it’s modern form, I wasn’t very interested in the original.

In science it isn’t the original presentation that’s important: I haven’t read Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, Maxwell’s A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, any of Einstein’s four “Annus Mirabilis” papers, Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, the list goes on…

And that’s not to mention the real contemporary material: correspondence, notes and labbooks. I have a sequence of about 20 labbooks in the loft from 15 years of research, supplemented by a hoard of files and e-mails stored on my computer, covering the same period. I’m not sure I even want to try to reconstruct what I was thinking over that period – let alone try it on someone else’s records! It’s not that I’m remiss as a scientist, we just don’t read original material.

The original presentation of an idea may not be the clearest, and it may well be that it makes more sense later to present it as part of a larger whole, and to be honest scientists can be a bit hit and miss: Newton’s physics is great but the alchemy was bonkers. Science comes in bits, these days the bits are the size of a journal article and it’s only when you’re doing active research at the cutting edge that you need to keep track of the bits.

Mathematical notation is an issue for original publications. For example, Maxwell’s equations, which describe electromagnetism (radio waves, electricity, light…) are a monster in his original presentation but can be squished down to four short lines in modern notation (actually a notation introduced not long after his original paper). There’s a rule of thumb that each equation in an article halves the number of readers, therefore I link you to Maxwell’s 1865 version on page 2 of this document with the modern version at the bottom of page 6…
impressive, no?

A bit of history is introduced into the teaching of science but it’s either anecdotal such as the apple falling on Newton’s head, Gallileo dropping things off towers, Sadi Carnot and his wacky exercises, or we might give a quick historical recap as we introduce a subject. But to be honest it’s really all window dressing, the function of this history is to provide a little colour and give students the opportunity to do some exercises which are tractible.

Are scientists losing out as a result of this historical blindness? History should certainly inform us of our place in society, and our future place in society (okay – I’m talking about cash here!). I’m less sure that it has something to teach us on the ‘craft’ of science, this is something that comes from professional training – perhaps it would help if we were not presented with such caricatures of our scientific heroes.

So that’s my view, how wrong can I be?