Tag: Royal Society

Book review: Joseph Banks by Patrick O’Brian

Once again I venture into my own idiosyncratic version of the book review: more reading notes than review. This time I’m reading the biography of Joseph Banks by Patrick O’Brian. Joseph Banks has popped up regularly in my recent reading about the Royal Society and the Age of Wonder. He was on Captain Cooks trip to Tahiti, and then went on to serve as President of the Royal Society for 42 years – the longest term of any President. The Inelegant Gardener has been reading about Kew and various plant hunters, and Sir Joseph crops up there too. Despite his many talents, there are relatively few biographies of Banks, and he is relatively unknown.

Sir Joseph was born of a wealthy family from Lincolnshire, he was educated at Harrow, Eton and then Oxford University. At some point in his school years he became passionately interested in botany, and whilst at Oxford he went to the lengths of recruiting a botany lecturer from Cambridge University to teach him. The lecturer was Daniel Solander, a very talented student of Carl Linnaeus, who would later accompany Banks on his trip around the world with Captain Cook, they would remain close friends until Solanders death in 1782.

Sir Joseph’s first trip abroad was to Newfoundland and Labrador in 1766. The area had been ceded to Britain by France, but there was an international fleet of fishing boats operating in it’s waters. Banks made his trip as a guest Constantine John Phipps on HMS Niger, which was sent to the area to keep an eye on things. It seems fairly common for gentleman to travel as guests on navy ships of the time: this was broadly the scheme by which Charles Darwin would later join HMS Beagle on his trip around the world.

1768-1771 finds Banks circumnavigating the world on Captain James Cook’s ship, HMS Endeavour, in Cook’s first such expedition. This voyage was funded by George III following an appeal from the Royal Society for a mission to Tahiti in order to observe the transit of Venus. Banks paid for the contingent of naturalists from his own funds. The stay in Tahiti is much written about largely, I suspect, because they remained there some time. Following their stay in Tahiti, they continued on to New Zealand, which they sailed around rather thoroughly but seemed to land on infrequently as a result of hostile responses from the inhabitants. They then sailed along the East coast of Australia, stopping off on the way at various locations but most particularly Botany Bay. At the time the the existence of Australia was somewhat uncertain in European minds. There’s a rather fine map of their course here and Banks’ journals are available here.

Through the chapters on both these voyages, O’Brian makes heavy use of the diaries of Banks, quoting from them extensively and often between block quotes further quoting Banks’ own words. This may work well for those of a more historical bent, but I felt the need for more interpretation and context. It often feels that O’Brian is more interested in the boats than the botany.

The next episode is somewhat odd: Banks was planning a second trip around the world with Captain Cook but he never went. At almost the last minute he withdrew on the grounds that the Admiralty would not provide adequate accommodation for him and his team scientists. The odd thing is that, despite what appears a fractious falling out, Banks appeared to remain very good friends with both Cook and Lord Sandwich, First Lord of the Admirality at the time. I wonder whether Banks, remembering the 50% mortality rate of his previous voyage with Cook, understandably got cold feet. As a consolation he went off to Iceland in 1772 for a little light botanising, where he scaled Hekla.

Despite recording an extensive journal, collecting a considerable number of anthropological, botanical and zoological specimens as well as a large number of drawings by his naturalist team Banks never published a full report of his Tahiti voyage. He showed the artefacts at his home in Soho Square and prepared a substantial manuscript, with many fine plates but seems to have lost interest in publishing close to the end of the exercise. Throughout his life he produced relatively few publications, this may be a reflection of his dilettante nature: he was skilled in many areas but not deeply expert and so published relatively little.

Banks was elected to the Royal Society whilst on his world tour, and later become President for a 42 year term, until his death in 1820. He made some effort to improve the election procedures of the Society, at the time of his election being in the right social class appeared to be more important than being a scientist. As part of his role as President he was heavily involved in providing advice to government including a proposal to use Australia as a colony for convicts. He was also heavily involved in arranging the return of scientists and others caught up in the wars following the French revolution. In addition to his work at the Royal Society, he also helped found the Africa Association and the Royal Academy.

Kew gardens was created a few years before Joseph Banks became it’s unofficial superintendent (in around 1773) and then director. He had a pivotal role in building the collection: commissioning plant collectors to travel the world, all backed by George III. I must admit that my recent reading has led me to see George III in a new light: as an enthusiastic supporter of scientific enterprises, rather than a mad-man. George III and Banks also collaborated on a programme to introduce merino sheep from Spain, which had potentially huge commercial implications. Banks was seen as a loyal courtier.

Through his life it’s estimated that Banks wrote an average of 50 letters per week almost entirely in his own hand, although they were fantastically well organised during his life, on his death they were rather poorly treated and dispersed. Warren R. Dawson produced a calendar of the remaining correspondence. I’ve not found this resource online but a treatment like this Republic of Letters would be fantastic.

I suspect a comprehensive biography of Joseph Banks is exceedingly difficult to write; this one seemed to cover voyaging well but I felt was lacking in botany and his scientific activities at the Royal Society. Perhaps the answer is that a comprehensive biography is impossible, since he had interests and substantial impacts in so many areas. There was simply no end to his talents!

In the style of a school project I have made a Google Map with some key locations in Joseph Banks’ life.

Seeing Further: A Blagger’s Guide (Part 2)

My writings on Seeing Further: The Story of Science and the Royal Society became unmanageably long, so I have split it into two parts, this is the second part, the first part can be found here.

In the earlier chapters there was much philosophy and history. Henry Petroski writes on bridges, which I must admit surprised me a little as an area of interest for the Royal Society but the link is there. When Robert Stephenson proposed the design for the original Britannia Bridge it was William Fairbairn, soon to become a fellow of the Royal Society, who carried out experiment studies to establish the shape of the iron box-sections. This was done by testing the strength of scale models, and progressively increasing the size of the models – extrapolating the results to the full-size bridge. Later he went on to investigate metal fatigue, which had led to several serious rail disasters in the 19th century.

We’re heading into living memory now, with Georgina Ferry’s chapter on structural biology through the medium of x-ray crystallography. A field in which Britain led the world in the middle of the 20th century. This period sees the election of the first female fellow of the Royal Society, Kathleen Lonsdale, in 1945, who made some of the first determinations, by crystallography, of the structure of small molecules. Following this Dorothy Hodgkin determined the structure of penicillin in secret work during World War II. This type of investigation reached a climax with the determination of the structures of first proteins, massive efforts taking Hodgkin 35 years for insulin and Max Perutz taking 22 years for haemoglobin. Georgina Ferry’s biography of Dorothy Hodgkin is well worth a read and covers in more depth much of the material in this chapter.

Steve Jones, geneticist, provides a chapter on biodiversity. We believe that evolution provides a good explanation of how species arise and change over time. The subject of biodiversity addresses the question: how many species can we expect to find in a particular environment? And the answer is we don’t really know,  there don’t seem to be any rules that allow us to predict biodiversity. There are some observations, such as biodiversity is greater in the tropics than elsewhere but no real understanding of why this might be.

C.P. Snow wrote about the two cultures, what is less well reported are his comments on the gulf between “pure” sciences and applied sciences. Philip Ball expands on this theme, and makes a plea for a better appreciation of the engineers and technologists, under whose aegis much essentially scientific work is done. One of his examples are plastics (or polymers), the field in which I am trained.

Paul Davies asks how special are we? In cosmology we hew to the Copernican Principle, the idea that there’s nothing special about earth, nor the sun nor even the galaxy we find ourselves in: if we look around the universe we expect to find planets, suns, galaxies just like our own. It is only when we enter the highly speculative area of the multiverse that this part of the Copernican Principle starts to break down. Related to this questions is the more open one of “Are we, intelligent life forms, special?”. We simply don’t know whether life, or intelligent life is common in the universe.

I hope you’re not getting bored of this machine gun delivery of chapter synopses!

Ian Stewart writes on the importance of mathematics, often hidden from view even to those in the know. He uses the example of the recent Mars missions, which fairly evidently use the mathematics of Isaac Newton (a fellow of the Royal Society), but less obviously the work of George Boole (another fellow living 1815-1864). Boole is responsible for providing the foundations of modern computing through his Boolean logic – the ones and zeros on which computers thrive. Compression and error-correction algorithms also make heavy but invisible use of mathematics. JPEG compression, in particular, uses the work of, foreign member of the Royal Society, Joseph Fourier (1768-1830).

John D. Barrow is up next, he is a cosmologist. He starts off explaining the underlying simplicity of physical laws, and the attempts to unify the theories of different forces into a single “Theory of Everything”. The current best candidate for this theory of everything is string theory. He then discusses chaos and complexity: simple laws do not lead to simple outcomes. The behaviour of a pile of sand is not easy to predict.

The next three chapters have a a slight theme running through them. Oliver Morton starts off with the “blue marble” image captured from Apollo 17. This demonstrates, self-evidently, the spherical nature of the earth but beyond this it implies an isolation and stasis. There is little evidence of movement, or process taking place. Morton’s point is that the Earth is not a static system: light from the sun enters and great cycles turn over carbon, nitrogen and water in the system, taking these chemicals through the earth and the sky. This leads into thinking about climate change.

Maggie Gee starts off by introducing about apocalyptic writing, fiction about the end of the world (or at least after a great disaster). Gee is an author of such fiction, including The Flood and The Burning Book. I must admit I’ve always seen this as a genre that doesn’t really ask me to contemplate my own end, but rather selfishly imagine my survival in the aftermath. After this introduction she then moves on to discuss global warming and the part that writers might play in it’s communication. I found this a very interesting perspective. Most of the authors in this volume I’ve read before, Maggie Gee is one I haven’t read but aim to address this lack.

Continuing the global warming theme, Stephen H. Schneider is a climate scientist who has long been involved in the the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), as an normal author in the first two reports and a lead author in the second two reports. In this chapter he talks about introducing standardised language to describe uncertainty into the fourth assessment report, known as AR4. There is a clear need to do this because if the scientists writing the report don’t communicate their assessments of uncertainty then others, less-qualified, will do it for them. It’s not that uncertainty was unrecognised in previous reports, but it’s communication was not clear. Schneider was involved in preparing clear advice in this area. Persuading scientists to use well-defined language to communicate uncertainty seems to have been a battle.

Gregory Benford talks about time, firstly he talks about the Deep Time discovered in the 19th century by geologists such as Charles Lyell FRS. This was the realisation that the earth had been around rather longer that the few thousand years that a literal reading of the bible suggested. This change in thinking was based on an assumption that the changes in landscape seen in the present were largely all that was required to create the landscape, this is in contrast to the prevailing view of the time based on cataclysms like the biblical Flood. Also, Darwin was of the view that evolution would have required hundreds of millions of years to lead to the diversity of species seen today.  The great age of the earth was subsequently confirmed using radioactive decay measurements. Also discussed is time and it’s merging into space which is central to Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Benford is a scientist and science-fiction writer, I can recommend Cosm, a story about physicists who create a universe in a particle accelerator and drive it off in a pickup truck.

And finishing off with a chapter by Lord Rees, the current President of the Royal Society. Rees looks forward  to discoveries in the next 50 years; at various times in the past people have claimed we are coming to the end of science. Rees points out that each new discovery opens up new areas, so feels there’s no risk of us running out of science to do. He also writes of the continuing role of scientists as advisers, a task that the Royal Society continues to coordinate and drive. And the finally on moral responsibilities of scientists, on which I wrote a little previously with regard to the atomic bomb.

All in all I found this a very enjoyable read, some of the philosophical and literary chapters I would not have read as full length treatments but enjoyed in shorter form. The links to the Royal Society are tenuous in many of the chapters, so perhaps it’s best to approach this book as a sampler for fine science writing.

Seeing Further: A Blaggers Guide (Part 1)

I originally intended to describe this post as a book review, but really it isn’t. It’s a blagger’s guide for those that haven’t read the book in question, (Seeing Further: The Story of science and the Royal Society edited by Bill Bryson) or who have read it, but need reminding of the contents. If you want to read a proper review then I suggest Clare Dudman’s review at Bookmunch.

Seeing Further is a collection of essays from a wide range of authors, all relating in some way to the Royal Society which celebrates it’s 350th anniversary this year. I’ve read other work by most of the authors – they are all excellent.

Since I’ve written notes on each chapter this has become quite a long post, so I’ve broken it into two parts. Part two can be found here.

Bill Bryson starts things off with an introduction, providing a brief sketch of the history of the Royal Society and introducing a few of the distinguished fellows. His favourite is Reverend Thomas Bayes. Bayes’ most important work was on probabilities, published two years after his death in 1761. Few will have heard of Bayes, but his work is central to modern statistics. I must admit this chapter made me curious as to the origins of other learned societies across Europe.

Then the fun begins with James Gleick, who has written excellent books on chaos and Richard Feynmann amongst many other things. He writes of the Society as an earlier version of the internet and the first place where people started recording and communicating observations systematically. They also conducted their own experiments. The international reach of the Royal Society was an essential component, managed effectively by it’s first Secretary, Henry Oldenburg.  Perhaps wisely the fellows instituted a ban on discussing religion or politics.

Margaret Atwood writes about the development of the idea of the mad scientist as portrayed in the 50’s B-movies. She sees the Royal Society, satirised by Jonathan Swift as the Grand Academy of Lagado in Gulliver’s Travels, as the link between Dr Faustus and the modern mad scientist. Travelling by way of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

These days it is broadly a given amongst scientists that the physical laws they determine here on earth extend throughout the cosmos. Margaret Wertheim writes on the genesis of this idea, the point when the boundary between heaven and earth was removed in mens minds and the heavens and earth started to be considered as a continuous whole, obeying the same physical laws. This transition had largely taken place prior to the formation of the Royal Society.

Neal Stephenson writes on Gottfried Leibniz and his monads. Stephenson is author of The Baroque Cycle, a historical science-fiction trilogy set around the time of the founding of the Royal Society with many of the early fellows featuring as characters. Monadology was Leibniz’s philosophical program for understanding the universe, looked at with a modern eye one can see intriguing insights but ultimately our current understanding of the universe is quite distant from Leibniz’s conception of monads. Nowadays it’s recognised that Leibniz and Newton invented calculus independently and simultaneously, although Leibniz published first. The priority in this area was greatly disputed, with the Royal Society standing firmly behind Newton, latterly their President.

Next up is Rebecca Newberger Goldstein on how the establishment of the Royal Society marked the coming together of the rationalists, whom we would probably call theoreticians now, and the empiricists, or experimentalist in modern parlance. Contrasting these two more modern movements with the teleologists of ancient Greece who believed that the world was designed with a purpose and so their philosophical program was to identify the purpose of all things and the progress of those things towards their final ends. Although the teleologists observed, they tended to do so passively whilst the empiricists actively experimented: setting up nature to reveal underlying processes. The immediate precursors to the Royal Society were represented by empiricists such as  Francis Bacon, William Gilbert, and William Harvey and the rationalists represented by Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei and Rene Descartes. John Locke, Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle are cited as those at the forefront of the debate on what constitutes an explanation during the forming of the Royal Society.

Now for Simon Schaffer who tells a tell about the use of scientific advice for public policy development, and public dispute over that advice. The story is set around the tale of a lightning strike in Norfolk which struck the Heckingham House of Industry (a workhouse) on 12 June 1781, causing substantial damage. The building was protected by pointy lightning rods, as recommended by the Royal Society and the tale is of much internal bickering as to whether the lightning rods had been installed properly or whether the advice given by the Society was wrong. This was highly relevant at the time since, for example, you’d want to be really sure of your lightning protection if you ran an arsenal, full of gunpowder. Also interesting is who the fellows of the Royal Society trusted to give eye-witness statements: gentleman! Schaffer never really resolves the issue of the accuracy of the advice but highlights the parallels of this argument with modern arguments about evidence-based policy and how best to make recommendations based on science.

We move on to Richard Holmes, who writes about ballomania. This is the name coined by Sir Joseph Banks, recent president of the Royal Society, for the enthusiasm in France for balloons of both hydrogen and hot air during the 1780’s. Outwardly Banks was dismissive of balloons, but in private he appears to have been keeping a close eye on developments. Ultimately the lack of navigability meant that interest in balloons waned. This chapter reminded me that Benjamin Franklin is someone of whom I need to know more, Franklin was Banks’ correspondent in Paris where much of the balloon-y action was based. Another snippet, Aeropaedia, published 1786 records a balloon flight from my now home-town of Chester. Richard Holmes is the author of The Age of Wonder, on which I wrote earlier.

Richard Fortey is up next, author of Dry Store Room No. 1, which is about the Natural History Museum, given this background it’s unsurprising that he writes about scientific collections. Well-curated collections of real objects are of critical importance to science. Fortey’s chapter explains the role that the Royal Society played in setting up such collections, principally through the work of Sir Hans Sloane, a president of the society, whose collection was to form the basis of the Natural History museum via the British Museum. Sir Joseph Banks makes an appearance, for his work in setting up the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, as does Carl Linaeus father of taxonomy.

Richard Dawkins, who needs no introduction, writes on the claims for precedence in the discovery of evolution. It’s relatively well-known that Alfred Russell Wallace spurred Charles Darwin into action by sending a manuscript to him which captured the core idea of evolution. Darwin’s great achievement was the full length exposition of the theory, backed with experiments, in On the Origin of Species. Perhaps less well known are Edward Blyth, who believed that natural selection stabilised those species created by God (which is not really evolution) and Patrick Matthew, who mentions an idea of evolution quite similar to Darwin in the appendix of his book Naval Timber and Arboriculture but seems to have little idea of its significance.

Here endeth the first part of this review, feel free to get up and move around, perhaps have a cake and a coffee. Then move on to Part 2.

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.