The Giant’s Shoulders #14

The search for nappium (

The search for nappium (

Discover. It is a word that can be said to best describe the pursuit of science. But we know that motivations for conducting science vary beyond the desire to discover something new. Over the summer I have been reading a few older books about the history of American science. So far, their authors all set out in the beginning the distinctions between internal (progressive development), external (institutional, national, etc.), and socially-constructed views of the history of science, and they situate their approach in either one or more of these views. Distinctions aside, science is surely contingent on many factors. It is not an isolated pursuit, but connected in interesting ways to the world in which science is developed. Race, gender, empire, environment, economics, religion, culture, politics, geography – name it and in some way science is affected by it, and science affects it. I particularly like the way historian Crosbie Smith states it in The Science of Energy: A Cultural History of Energy Physics in Victorian Britain (1998): “One of the central features of a contextual history is to present scientific work not as the product of isolated individuals but as crucially contingent upon the cultural resources of the age in which it was produced.” Whether they describe the progressive development of science, illuminate the relationships between scientists and institutions, or reveal the numerous ways that science is a culturally-bound institution, let us delve into the wide variety of posts on the history of science for this 14th edition of The Giant’s Shoulders. The Giant’s Shoulders (carnival site/blog site) is:

a monthly science blogging event, in which authors are invited to submit posts on “classic” scientific papers… Why restrict yourself to “classic” papers? Entries profiling an important person or concept in the history of science are also acceptable.

The Giant’s Shoulders #14

Bora Zivkovic of A Blog Around the Clock has always been an advocate for the appreciation of the history of science (he is, after all, co-adminstator along with gg of The Skulls of Stars of The Giant’s Shoulders). But he continues to share interesting things about the history of science in his posts. In “The exciting history of the history of science. And mammoths!” Bora points us to a series of posts on the blog archy (from John McKay) about the history of mammoths and paleontology. He starts out:

But it is even more fun watching the historians of science at work. Most recent science is pretty easy to figure out. But going into the past, it gets harder and harder. The unit of information today is the peer-reviewed scientific paper in a journal that is for the most part easily obtainable online. But in the past, books were more important. The standards of evidence were not as stringent. The various pseudoscientific and borderline scientific ideas were mainstream. Many scientific findings were made by adventurous explorers, not people with long and sophisticated scientific training. The line between science and fiction was not very clear. While today English is the language of science, in the past many languages were used, and not everyone could read all of them. Transport of books around the world was slow and difficult. Plagiarism was harder to detect, thus rampant. History of science, and even more the work of science historians, reads like a detective thriller! Now that’s exciting!

Indeed, Bora!

For more on paleontology, check out Brian Switek’s “Ameghino’s ‘Elephants'” at his blog Laelaps. Brian tells us about the Argentine naturalist Florentino Ameghino’s nationalistic efforts to make a place for South America in paleontology, and how his “scientific sins” were dismissed by fellow naturalists:

Florentino’s most controversial work often had a nationalistic bent. Ever since evolution became fully integrated into paleontology after 1859 many scientists wanted to trace the origins of living animals, especially humans. Identifying early transitional forms and the places of origin for major groups was thus an important task in understanding the history of life, and Florentino favored South America as a highly productive evolutionary cradle. Florentino traced every group of mammals back to South America, including elephants.

In “Hugh Falconer” at Michael Bertasso’s blog Darwinaia, we learn how a contemporary of Darwin’s was also interested in the evolutionary history of elephants, “plac[ing] their likely ancestral stock in India.” Falconer was interested in much more, and debated with the scientific elite of Victorian England:

However, in a society rich with scientific visionaries, it is all too often the case that some individuals get overlooked.  Hugh Falconer is one of these individuals.  Mention the words “Victorian” and “scientist” in a sentence, and most people will think of Darwin, Owen, Huxley, Lyell, Wallace, or some other well-known scientist.  Falconer operated in the same scientific arenas as these men, and often butted heads with some of them.  He was a relatively close friend of Darwin (see Desmond and Moore 1991 p. 528 on Darwin’s reaction to Falconer’s death for example).  He anticipated a modern development in evolutionary theory.  Yet hardly anyone knows his name.

At Skulls in the Stars, gg offers another in a series of posts on the work of the nineteenth-century physicist Michael Faraday. In “Maxwell on Faraday” we learn of Maxwell’s respect for Faraday by way of his own writing in A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism (1873), and get a response about it:

Maxwell concisely summarizes one of the reasons that I find the study of the history of science useful: “science is always most completely assimilated when it is in the nascent state.”  This reminds me of a discussion I had once as a T.A. for a math methods class: the teacher was “old school”, and the recommended texts for the course were all classics of mathematical literature.  Some students actually complained to me about being forced to read “old books!”  My immediate response was something to the effect of: “If you’re planning to do research, you’re going to have to read an old reference eventually, you might as well learn to do it now!”  There’s an even more compelling reason to read from the original sources: the discoverers of a phenomena or theorem are almost always the ones who understood it best, as they likely spent the most time thinking about the problem.

Michael Faraday was succeeded as Professor of Natural Philosophy at the Royal Institution of Great Britain by the Irish physicist John Tyndall in 1853, a position he held until retirement in 1887. Tyndall, and how he was received by the religious community, is the topic of two posts by, well, me. “Evolution Quote Mining in the 19th-Century,” at The Dispersal of Darwin, traces how a quote from Tyndall was taken out of context in the 1880s, making it seem that he rejected the theory of evolution:

Clearly Tyndall does not reject the theory of evolution. He is making a distinction between what can be known about evolution through experimental inquiry and what cannot. The New York Times piece takes Tyndall’s quote out of context and skews Tyndall’s intentions. This is a perfect example of quote mining. Tyndall did not state that “evolution belongs to the twilight of conjecture,” but rather that “the theory of evolution applied to the primitive condition of matter” belongs to “the dim twilight of conjecture.” Surely two different meanings. Darwin explained how species evolved, but not how life first originated. This is what Tyndall is getting at.

And in “19th-Century Caricature Prints with Tyndall” at my blog Transcribing Tyndall, I share images of two caricature prints I saw at the Whipple Museum of the History of Science in Cambridge. In one, “Our national church the aegis of liberty, equality, and fraternity” (1882), Tyndall is caricatured along with Thomas Huxley as a disciple of Charles Darwin, Darwin himself seen as a monkey calling out, “This way to daylight my sons.” I have since learned that this caricature, showing the wide range of religious opinion in England, was released in two versions. The version I did not see, from 1873, is slightly different. Tyndall and Huxley are joined by Spencer, heading up steps showing geological ages, and Darwin is represented by a bust lit up by the sun peeking out from clouds that hover over the final step, “Protoplasm.” [Both versions of the caricature are on Darwin Online (1873/1887), and the 1873 version is discussed in Janet Browne’s Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (2002) and Paul White’s Thomas Huxley: Making the Man of Science (2003). Thank you to historian Thomas Dixon for sharing some information about these caricatures.]

Another issue with quotations. This time Brian Switek of Laelaps looks for the origin of the following quote which appear time and time again in writings about Darwin in “Darwin and the Bishop’s Wife”:

Descended from the apes? Dear me, let us hope it is not true,” allegedly exclaimed the wife of a 19th-century English bishop upon hearing of Darwin’s new theory. “But if it is true, let us hope it does not become widely known.

As we should be with references, Brian had reason to be skeptical:

But where did this quote come from? Montagu’s phrasing indicates that the quote was already well-known when he transcribed (paraphrased?) it, yet there appears to be no occurrence of it whatsoever before 1942. Although the original quote may be hiding in some elusive journal, periodical, or book, I have not been able to find any trace of it before that year… It is possible that the quote was never actually said but was fashioned to represent the shock that Victorian-era society supposedly felt when Darwin published On the Origin of Species… As far as I have been able to tell no one has successfully traced the origins of the quote. For me the trail ran cold, but perhaps professional historians have had better luck and I have missed their work.

Einstein, too, is often misquoted. In “10 Lessons Every Student Can Learn From Einstein” at Online College, we are presented with 10 quotations from Einstein – some honest, some unfortunately misattributed.

But sometimes quotes can be correct, and possibly amusing. In “Friday Weird Science: Refridgerator Mothers vs. Refridgerator Kids” at Neurotopia, Scicurious was intrigued by a 1958 article in the journal Pediatrics, “Behavior of young children under conditions simulating entrapment in refrigerators”:

So why on earth might people trap children in refrigerators? Well, it turns out that kids in the 1950s got trapped in those a lot (apparently they still do, and this is why you are supposed to take the lining off your fridge before you throw it away, to take away the airtight seal).

Scicurious goes on to describe the experiment detailed in the article, and ends showing the practical side of scientific experiment:

The results of the experiment actually ended up in a law, providing that refrigerators have a simple internal release mechanism, or, alternatively, that the door open in response to less than 20 lbs of pressure from the inside. I’m [not] sure if these laws are still in effect, but hopefully they have helped some kids.

At Genomicron, T. Ryan Gregory gives some thoughts, in response to a recent review of Philosophie Zoologique (1809), about Lamarck in “Lamarck in Nature”:

It’s not so much a literary review per se as a brief essay on Lamarck’s unflattering and unwarranted legacy. Lamarck was the first to propose a scientific theory of evolution, and he coined the terms “invertebrate” and “biology”. Unfortunately, Lamarck’s important contributions are often clouded by misconceptions about what he actually said, both by critics and by modern authors who insist on (mis)labeling the inheritance of acquired characteristics as “Lamarckian”, especially when discussing epigenetics research. (For my comment on this, seehere and here). Thankfully, Graur et al. hit on both of these issues, and make a much-needed appeal for clarification and recognition of Lamarck’s contributions.

In “NEW VOICES: georgie boy” at Cocktail Party Physics, Jennifer Ouellette shares an aspect of the career of Walter Cheadle, a nineteenth-century doctor in London who was concerend with helping children and women (and in response his reputation suffered). One child, Georgie, is diagnosed by Cheadle, using case-based reasoning, as suffering from rickets and scurvy. But:

According to a 2004 article in the Journal of Nutrition Science, “[t]he first scientific approach to [rickets] was made by McCollum and his co-workers [in 1914].” This article describes the discovery of the biochemistry of vitamin D, a story climaxing in the awarding of the Nobel prize in 1928. (Nobels were awarded in 1937 for work on vitamin C.)  Thus, Dr. Cheadle’s use of “case-based reasoning” to cure patients is not “scientific” by the criteria of this article… Dr. Cheadle cured Georgie without having a twentieth-century understanding of vitamins. Georgie would have been 52 in 1928 and 61 in 1937, when the significance of vitamins D and C were being  Nobel-y acknowledged, respectively, but it was thanks to Dr. Cheadle’s case-based clinical knowledge that Georgie lived to be 2 in 1878.

Another doctor is featured in “Science Maligned” by Surbhi Bhatia at The Viewspaper. Subhash Mukhopadhyay, the first Indian doctor to perform the procedure to produce a test tube baby, killed himself in 1982:

But the doctor’s claim to accomplish in-vitro fertilization successfully was greeted with disbelief and disdain. Not only was he mocked by his peers, the Indian Government also did not allow him to attend a seminar in Japan that had been organized by Kyoto University (which invited him to present his experiment to the international community in 1979). Although his British counterparts also received criticism from the world, but Mukhopadhyay’s story never reached the world! In fact, he could never submit his research. The only evidence of his research being a report which he submitted to the West Bengal Marxist government which does not give any proper scientific account of the technique he invented. Shocked and depressed, Dr Mukhopadhyay committed suicide on June 19, 1981. It was in October, 2005 that the Indian Council of Medical Research finally declared him as the person to give India’s first test tube baby.

Like Jennifer Ouellette’s post, disease is also the topic of Thony C.’s “Syphilis and Comets” at his new blog The Renaissance Mathematicus. Thony links medicine and astronomy in the sixteenth century:

There is a certain irony to the fact that Fracastoro published important texts on both syphilis and comets, as one of the prevailing medical theories of the period was that syphilis was a curse caused by comets. Fracastoro is a typical example of a relatively minor scholar who is today virtually unknown but in his own times made important contributions to the debate that propels the development of science.

Thony discusses the rejection of the Ptolemaic system in his post, as does Ethan Siegel at Starts With A Bang! in “Suck it, Ptolemy”:

It wasn’t until nearly 1500 years later, when Copernicus realized that if an inner planet moved faster than an outer planet, it would appear that Mars moved backwards from the point of view of Earth… So that’s the cause of the apparent “retrograde motion” of Mars. What the history books don’t tell you? By time Copernicus came along, Mars’ orbit had been so carefully studied that geocentric modelers of the Solar System had placed seventy-eight epicycles on Mars’ orbit! And, much like you, I wonder what blind alley we’re inadvertently treading down, adding epicycles to, all because we don’t have the proper perspective? [Thony C. corrects a bit of information in this.]

“While much of the history of science necessarily focuses on centers of elite learning,” writes Will Thomas in “Hump-Day History: Imperial College” at Ether Wave Propaganda, “a thorough understanding necessitates examination of the broader foundations of scientific culture.” Will continues by describing the emergence of technical schools in London in the second half of the nineteenth century, many of which were consolidated into Imperial College in 1907:

Imperial College became a part of the University of London system in 1929, and steadily improved its academic standing through the interwar period.  It was the home of mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead for ten years, as well as of noted physicists Robert Strutt and George Thomson (the sons of Lord Rayleigh and J. J. Thomson, respectively; the younger Thomson was co-winner of the 1937 Nobel Prize).  In this period, though, the Imperial’s main strengths were in the biological and earth sciences.  By the time World War II ended, Imperial had become a major nationwide center for original scientific and technical research.  Though Cambridge would remain the most important academic scientific institution in Britain, any history of British science should acknowledge that by this period the intellectual base of science had become institutionally diffuse, along the lines of the university systems of Germany and the United States.

Cambridge. Just a little over a month ago I was there for a conference. That trip allowed me to finally meet some science bloggers I’ve been in touch with online for a few years: Karen James of the Beagle Project and Richard Carter of The Friends of Charles Darwin. On his blog The Red Notebook, Richard has a few short posts about his time in Cambridge: “Darwin’s room,” “Darwin’s octopus,” and “Darwin’s beetles.” Just fun armchair history of science:

Darwin was hopelessly wrong about the colour-changing ability of octopuses being a new observation. But never mind: the good news is that one of Darwin’s St Jago octopuses is still alive and kicking preserved for posterity in Cambridge, and I have photos to prove it.

The social origins of Darwin’s natural selection are explored in “Darwin’s Simulacrum” by rgwallace at Farming Pathogens. While not going so far as creationists to say that Darwin stole the idea of natural selection from Alfred Russel Wallace, rgwallace does criticize Darwin:

The deal has always bothered me. It isn’t that I think Wallace deserved credit alone–Darwin’s version is better substantiated–but rather I’m piqued by the old boy network, an accumulated class advantage Darwin could rely on to protect him from the consequences of his own cowardice. Darwin had shielded himself, and his petty personal ambitions, from Anglican retribution, going so far as helping hang fellow evolutionists, but now wanted the kind credit of discovery someone who had the guts to openly speak out about it plainly deserved instead. One could reasonably argue his secrecy was the only way Darwin could work on–and substantiate–such a theory for so long in this kind of England. I think that a fair contention (and also open to rebuttal). But let us no longer entertain illusions of guileless innocence on the part of a boyish Darwin. That he allowed his proxies to conduct his Machiavellian affairs, however generous he was to Wallace himself, makes Darwin no less conniving.

In “Scientific cranks: going strong since at least 1891” at Skulls in the Stars, gg looks at an instance of unprofessionalism in a journal from 1891:

The single word that jumped out at me while skimming the titles was the word, “absurdity”, in J. Parker’s “Theory of magnetism and the absurdity of diamagnetic polarity.”  Clearly “absurd” is a very negatively charged and polemical word; Merriam-Webster defines it as, “ ridiculously unreasonable, unsound, or incongruous.”  Though scientists will freely use such words in spoken arguments with colleagues (I’ve heard, and used, far worse in discussions with collaborators), it is generally unprofessional to use such insults in printed papers, and a sign of someone who is motivated by emotion, not reason.

What is absurd is the constant connection between Darwin and Hitler. In “Darwin → Hitler? Naw” at The Panda’s Thumb, Richard B. Hoppe looks at this apparent connection as offered by Benjamin Wiker, and writes:

Wiker’s view depends in large part on the supposition that German evolutionary thinking about evolution actually followed Darwin. However, as a recent book review in PLoS Biology points out, what reached Germany was not the English version of Origin of Species, it was a translation by German paleontologist Heinrich Georg Bronn that was a main source of German notions of Darwinian evolution, and those notions were a distortion of Darwin’s views. Bronn had a substantially different conception of evolution than Darwin, and Bronn’s translation apparently incorporated a good bit of his own conception rather than being a straight translation of Darwin. Bronn even added an extra chapter to OoS incorporate his own ideas.

Others responded to that book review (of Sander Gliboff’s H.G. Bronn, Ernst Haeckel, and the Origins of German Darwinism: A Study in Translation and Transformation) as well. From Eric Michael Johnson’s “Charles Darwin’s Reception in Germany” at The Primate Diaries:

While it is technically correct to say that Haeckel’s connection with Nazi eugenics is “disputed” (in the same way that global warming is disputed) the evidence is persuasive that Haeckel was not a precursor to the Nazis and, even if he was, the Nazi leadership prohibited any scholars from using Haeckel’s work as part of their platform.

And at The Mermaid’s Tale, Ken Weiss writes in “Heckling Haeckel”:

As part and parcel of their appeal to recover national self-esteem after the devastation it experienced in WWI, the Nazis were, if anything, hyper-Nordic. They reveled in anything Aryan. They would have lauded Haeckel with great enthusiasm as a hero of their race. Indeed, in both Haeckel’s human evolutionary tree, and even Baur et al., Jews were placed at a very high plane among humans. The authors certainly knew of Haeckel and his writing, as he was still alive and was perhaps the most celebrated public scientist in the world (and certainly in Germany). Yet, they ignored him… The Nazis took a ready-made Darwinian justification for their vitriol that was ‘in the air’ at the time. Their abuses were their own doing!

Recently creationists have also angried some historians of science. In the docu-drama film The Voyage That Shook The World, produced by Creation Ministries International, Darwin’s legacy is considered. Three historians of science interviewed for the film were not told by “Fathom Media Group” that the film was being produced by a creationist organization. Read more about the film and the issue in “Historians respond to ‘The Voyage that Shook the World'” at A Simple Prop, “More lying creationists, now with biblical justification” at Why Evolution Is True, “Creationist Darwin docu-drama and allegations of misrepresentations” at The Lippard Blog, “The Voyage That Shook the World,” also at The Lippard Blog, “Counting Noses” at Thoughts in a Haystack, and “The Voyage That Shook the World” at Vridar.

Finally, at The Art of Teaching Science Blog, Jack Hassard, in “The Invention of Air and Science Teaching,” recommends Stephen Johnson’s The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America as a tool in teaching science, for he advocates a “humanistic science paradigm to reform of science teaching—one that attempts to think in wholes, and values interdisciplinary thinking, not only amongst fields in science, but across disciplines to include science, history, politics and religion.”

That’s it for this edition of The Giant’s Shoulders. The next edition will be hosted by Entertaining Research on September 16, 2009. Submit your posts via the carnival website or directly to the host blog.

7 thoughts on “The Giant’s Shoulders #14

  1. Pingback: Giant’s Shoulders #14 « The Renaissance Mathematicus

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  4. Pingback: ScienceBlogs Channel : Humanities & Social Science | blogcable

  5. Pingback: The Giant’s Shoulders #25: 2nd Anniversary Edition! « The Dispersal of Darwin

  6. Pingback: Giants’ Shoulders #60 Part I: Five Full Years: A Retrospective | The Renaissance Mathematicus

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