The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Welcome to the twenty-fourth instalment of the Giant’s Shoulders, the monthly carnival of science and history-of-science blogging from around the planet. In this issue, there’s a bit of a preponderance of historical vignettes, which I trust you’ll find interesting.

Shall we start with a timeline of scientific discoveries, analyses and inventions? How about this – from years that end in 24 in every century? I’m missing several years, so if you’d like to fill those in, please be my guest.

I can’t think of any particular grouping in this carnival. You know, by subject and all that. It’s pretty motley. Chronological order is somewhat unsatisfying, like arranging books on your shelf in alphabetical order of title. Let us, therefore, be whimsical.

From New at LacusCurtius & Livius, we have Bill Thayer’s introduction and a link to a classic paper about how people developed effective ways to compute the heights of mountains. It’s a wide-ranging work, starting from the Ancient Greeks and working its way through Kepler and The paper is from 1929, so expect nothing on GPS in it!

Continuing with mensuration, Ethan Siegel at ScienceBlogs has a neat little piece about how to determine distances to the stars. In How Far to the Stars, he explains the principle of parallax, notes that Copernicus thought he could use it to tell distances, and then goes on to Christiaan Huygens’s idea of using luminosity to compute how far Sirius is from us.

So we are able to measure distances with excellent accuracy. But what of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle? Surely it’s impossible to measure simultaneously (to arbitrary precision) both the position and the momentum of an object? This is certainly true on the scale of the truly small, but why is it not so evident on the scale of our senses? Why does quantum mechanics explain to remarkable accuracy the weird behaviour of the minute but loses that weirdness at the macroscopic? On homunculus, Philip Ball presents Big Quantum, where he talks about this explanatory lacuna in the transition between the very small and the large. It’s all due to decoherence!


How about some pseudoscience? Alchemy has had a bad rap, and yet it provided the foundations for chemistry. Via Thony C., we have Lawrence Principe and the Rehabilitation of Alchemy – another lecture in Utrecht posted at Heterodoxology.

For another example of the genre, we have Caroline Rance at The Quack Doctor with an interesting little piece about one type of alternative medicine – uroscopy. This is the use of urine’s colour, consistency, taste and smell as a diagnostic tool. By the 19th century, professional medics had discounted this as quackery, but common people continued to frequent piss-doctors. In Cameron the Piss-Prophet, we learn how one such worthy was hoist by his own petard.

From one aspect of quackery, we move on to another. In 1726, a woman named Mary Toft (or Tofts) was a sensation in England for having allegedly given birth to rabbits.

Hogarth's Cunicularii (source: Tate Britain, Hogarth Exhibition 2007)

She had supporters and deriders in equal measure; scientists argued both in her favour (e.g. a medical doctor, John Maubray) and against (Sir Richard Manningham, a male midwife). William Hogarth’s Cunicularii at the Wellcome Library Item of the Month (besides analysing some lovely etchings by the great artist) raises a subtle question.

Leaving quackery, we ponder another form of obfuscation. Via Thony C. we have an article titled “Follies of the present day”: Scriptural Geology from 1817 to 1857 by J.M. Lynch at A Simple Prop. Who were scriptural geologists? These were scientists who tried somehow to unify vast geological time with their faith in the Bible’s six days of creation. Note that these people did not believe (pace Ussher) that the Universe was formed in 4004 BC.

Why did these Christian scientists not pay closer attention to James Hutton? In 1785, he had published an article Concerning the System of the Earth, Its Duration, and Stability in which he began the study of deep geological time. Via Thony C., we have John F. Ptak’s Raising Greatness: James Hutton’s Deep View of Time, 1795 posted at Ptak Science Books talking about Hutton’s remarkable intuition, as he saw the entirety of Earth’s history explained in the sloping red sandstone at Siccar Point.

While on the subject of deep time, a fossil of the Archaeopteryx was first discovered in 1861. Since then palaeontologists have argued whether this transitional creature (between dinosaurs and true birds) was capable of flight. Ed Yong presents First Birds Were Poor Fliers at the Discover Magazine Blog. There were some reasons to believe that the beast could fly but also good reasons why not.

Fossils and da Vinci - who would have thunk it? Via Thony C., we have Brian Switek's Leonardo da Vinci - Palaeontology Pioneer at the Smithsonian Magazine's blog.


Dorset Ancestors have a biography of Francis Glisson, a native of that English county, who went on to great success as a doctor in 17th century London. When he heard of a new debilitating disease among children of Dorset, he studied it carefully and concluded that this bone-deformative condition (which we know as ‘rickets’) was caused by malnutrition.

A sesquicentennial after Glisson plied his investigative mind, another Englishman began to consider the various causes of deafness in people. As a diagnostic tool, John Harrison Curtis invented the Cephaloscope, which is described in Jaipreet Virdi’s post The Cephaloscope on From the Hands of Quacks.

John Harrison Curtis also insisted that aurists – students of auditory illnesses – should also be attached to medical hospitals. Jaipreet Virdi’s related post The London Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb tells this story.

From illnesses of the body, we segue to a illness of the mind. The dreaded African disease, sleeping sickness, when in an advanced stage, often resulted in violent mania. Was this true insanity on the part of the natives, or just a manifestation of a fear of isolation in a camp? From Sleeping Sickness and Lunacy at the Colonial Psychiatry Hub, we learn that much documentation of the effects of sleeping sickness on the local population is available from the British staffers of the Colonial Office (Uganda).


Just for variety, here’s something to watch rather than to read. Via Thony C., we have Lens on Leeuwenhoek: Videos about his life, times, and accomplishments posted at Lens on Leeuwenhoek.

This video is an overview of the life, times, and accomplishments of Antony van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), the Dutch scientist who used hand-made single-lens microscopes to become the first human to see protozoa, bacteria, sperm, and red blood cells, among many other things.

And although that video’s only 7 minutes long, it promises more riches to come. Can there be any more to van Leeuwenhoek, then? Indeed there can, and Thony C. presents Lego-nhoek? posted at Antoni van Leeuwenhoek Centraal.

van Leeuwenhoek, of course, was a contemporary, competitor and Royal Society colleague of that polymath Robert Hooke. I found several blogs on this brilliant Englishman, and planned to chuck them in here, but closer scrutiny revealed that at least one of those pieces was a copy of a Wikipedia article. I hope this is not a similar copy: Leland Velazquez discusses the Physics of Bungee Jumping. Hooke’s work on elasticity leading to his eponymous law is the underpinning of this extreme sport.

If Robert Hooke is around, Christopher Wren can’t be far behind. Another brilliantly multifaceted man, Wren involved himself in astronomy, mathematics, architecture, art, and – we learn from Christopher Wren and the Bees by Gene Kritsky at Wonders & Marvels – beekeeping. Why is this scientifically relevant? He also developed the transparent beehive that was suitable for the scientific observation of bee behaviour.

The bees were able to move between the various layers of the hive, and glass panels set into the structure allowed an observer to see the honey cascading down inside it. Although Wren’s construction had not been an immediate success (due to a failure to realise that bees worked downwards), it offered the prospect of an ever-increasing stock of bees and honey within the same hive. [from here]

Speaking of polymaths, there was Florence Fenwick Miller in the 19th century. She was a suffragette, a journalist, an educator, and a qualified medical doctor. From Peacay at the absolutely ravishing BibliOdyssey, we have An Atlas of Anatomy.

From Peacay at BibliOdyssey again, we have Fungis Danicis, a lovely set of illustrations of fungi studied by a Danish lawyer-turned-botanist named Theodor Holmskjold in the 18th century. This worthy actually identified over fifty new species during two years of observation in the countryside near Aarhus.


Now for some controversy! When scientists without training in history try to develop works in the history of science, clearly feathers are ruffled.  Via Thony C., we have Renaissance Art or Neuroanatomy? Part 1 and part 2, posted by Darin at PACHSmörgåsbord. It appears that there have been a series of papers over the past 20 years by various scientists trying to find hidden anatomically precise messages in Michelangelo’s art.

Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam

R. Donald Fields wrote up a guest blog at Scientific American recently that discusses the oeuvre; as it turns out, none of the scientists involved is a trained historian. As the rebuttal at PACHSmörgåsbord makes clear, this is dangerous practice:

Why does this matter? Because such articles attract the attention of editors and contributors at places like Scientific American. These contributors then post a redaction of the article on the website, where the post becomes one of the most popular. Such redactions misrepresent the history of science, suggest that anybody can write the history of science, and deny that historians of science have a discrete expertise. That’s why it matters.

But just to show that not all scientific speculation on art is ill-founded, check out this interesting bit of detective work by a bunch of astronomers at Texas State University. Via Thony C., we have a post by Roger Sinnott on Sky And Telescope titled Walt Whitman’s Meteor-Procession, we learn about the great poet’s imagery (“the strange huge meteor-procession" that went "shooting over our heads" with "its balls of unearthly light”) and an interesting astronomical phenomenon.

I’m not sure if this next piece fits within the purview of our Carnival (as it may be more aligned to sociology) but I think it relates to a seminal work of behavioural psychology, so perhaps I can present it? Christopher Greene’s Clarks’ Black-White Doll Experiment Replicated at Advances in the History of Psychology blog discusses an even more controversial subject than that in the preceding paragraph, and highlights its most recent replication under the aegis of CNN (full report here in PDF).


On to more jolly subjects. Remember Light Amplification by the Stimulated Emission of Radiation? It is 50 years since the invention of the (optical) laser. Via Thony C., we have Happy Birthday! posted by Matt Springer at Built on Facts.

Another anniversary is that of Vannevar Bush’s visionary piece sixty-five years ago in the Atlantic Review about associative links in information, which one can easily see as an early precursor to hypertext and all that. Via gg, we have Simon Harper’s review ‘As We May Think’ at 65 from his blog Thinking Out Loud.

In the 19th century, by a gradual process of socialisation, the scientific and professional communities in the USA began to differentiate themselves. Will Thomas posts Paul Lucier on ‘Professionals’ and ‘Scientists’ in 19th century America at the Ether Wave Propaganda blog.

We end on a luminous, numinous note. What links a certain 1980s teen film, a song by John Parr, the Chinese sea-goddess Mazu, and – wait for it – ionised air? In St Elmo’s Fire, Captain Skellet of A Schooner of Science explains the whys and the hows of the gorgeous blue glow that appears on the tips of masts on sailing ships.


[And there you have it. Thanks for stopping by. I hope this encourages  you to write up your own pieces on science and its history and philosophy. Do consider submitting your blog article to the next edition of the giant's shoulders at The Dispersal of Darwin. You can use the carnival submission form. Past posts and future hosts can be found on the blog carnival index page.]


Thony C. said...

Nice job, well done.

Fëanor said...


Jai said...

Great summary--and thanks for including me as well. I look forward to your next recap.

Fëanor said...

Good articles, Jai, glad to include them. Perhaps you can get on the carnival roster as well, and publish a recap? (The next instalment is at the Dispersal of Darwin).

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