Well, a virtual recreation with a bit of license. This started as a test to see if the physically based render program Luxrender can make a believable simulation of white light passing through a prism. Unbiased render engines like Luxrender send out very many virtual photons and calculate their paths according to physical laws, and as the ray-tracing algorithm includes colour dispersion, it should work in theory.
Throw a second prism into the scene, and we have Isaac Newton’s ‘Experimentum Crucis’: one of a series of experiments performed by Newton in 1666 and reported in a letter to the Royal Society in 1671 (1), showing how white light is composed of a range of colours separable by a prism. He demonstrated the colours were a property of the light, not the prism, by using a slit to isolate an individual colour from one prism, and passing it through a second where no further separation of colours occurred – the second prism just refracted the single colour to one side. Here is Newton’s own drawing of his two-prism experiment.
My distances and prism sizes are not accurate, but the simulation still works. Also, while Newton used the sun as a light source, sometimes passed through a slit before the first prism or focused through a lens as above, my source is a small rectangular surface radiating in all forward directions, but with a collimating tunnel placed in front of it. If the light source is too ill-defined or unfocused, in both reality and in the simulation, the separation in the spectrum can look reasonable superficially, but actually comprise a series of fuzzy overlapping spectra. The result being, when I ran this without the collimator, the green band split into further discernible colours. That said, it’s worth remembering that while Newton reported seeing seven colours, the actual spectrum is a continuum of wavelengths, so a single colour will in fact be made of a range of further dispersible shades – we just don’t discern it.
Here is a close-up of the isolating slit and the green spectral ‘line’ deviated but not dispersed by the second prism. I’ve also in this picture turned out the background light used solely for dramatic effect in the first picture.
And here are wireframe pics of the layout (scene created in Poser and linked to Luxrender via Reality):
An interesting feature of this type of modelling is the need for a so-called Tone Mapping process, by which the multiple wavelengths for which the ray-tracing maths must be repeated to simulate dispersion is translated into the red, blue, and green (RGB) that the computer monitor can understand to display the result.
Also worth noting the limitations to this sort of progam as a virtual optical bench. Luxrender is not, for example, up to calculating the quantum probability amplitudes necessary to simulate interference as seen in the double slit experiment.
“A squib is a type of firework, hence damp squib: something that fails ignominiously to satisfy expectations; an anti-climax.”
Oxford English Dictionary
The opportunities for non-scientists to do science have never been greater: it’s called Citizen Science.
Helping out the professionals can involve anything from counting ladybirds in your back yard, to looking for alien life, to classifying galaxies and discovering new planets, to monitoring the population dynamics of the Rose-Ringed Parakeet. Just take your pick from the Zooniverse Smörgåsbord.
But when was the first citizen science project? I’ve been thinking about it lately, and my starter-for-ten comes from some research I did last year about fireworks. There must be other examples, so please comment if you have any.
Not to be distracted by definitions (however interesting – see Openscientist), I’m taking citizen science to mean some sort of research or project where a scientist – or what passed for one at the time – appeals to the public to report observations, measurements, or such like.
My candidate project concerns Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) Benjamin Robins, who in 1748 made a general appeal to the public to observe and report the height of rockets – ultimately with military and surveying purposes in mind – during a firework display.
Without email, podcasts, or Dara Ó Briain’s Science Club, Robins’s request appeared as an anonymous bulletin in the November 1748 issue of The Gentleman’s Magazine1 (in his excellent Fireworks: Pyrotechnic Arts and Sciences in European History2, Simon Werrett suggests Robins is the most likely author)
For if such as are curious and are from 15 to 50 miles distant from London, would carefully look out in all proper situations on the night when these fireworks are play’d off, we should then know the greatest distance to which rockets can possibly be seen; which if both the situation of the observer, and the evening be favourable, will not, I conceive, be less than 40 miles. And if ingenious gentlemen who are within 1,2 or 3 miles of the fireworks, would observe, as nicely as they can, the angle that the generality of the rockets shall make to the horizon, at their greatest height, this will determine the perpendicular ascent of those rockets to sufficient exactness.
The Gentleman’s Magazine1November 1748
Robins had made a name for himself in gunnery and ballistics, calculating for the first time how air resistance affects military projectiles3. Now he enthused over rockets for their
…very great use in geography, navigation, military affairs, and many other arts;1.
The light alone from a rocket was a useful signal in war; but Robins knew more was possible. Provided the rocket rises vertically to a known height, the observed angle between the horizon and the rocket at the top of its flight lets you calculate its distance. Before GPS and radio, this could tell you where someone was:
The map maker John Senex had already used the method for surveying4, but Robins needed more height and distance data to refine and calibrate the technique. But where would the rockets come from?
As it turned out, Robins’s timing was perfect. Bringing to an end a series of tortuous European wars, the recently signed Treaty of Aix-la-Chappelle was the latest cause for national, and therefore Royal, celebration. And George II planned to celebrate in style, with a sound and light spectacular involving the launch of thousands of firework rockets. The geo-politics of the day were about to lend Robins an unlikely and unwitting hand.
Held at Green Park, London, in April 1749, George’s display, famously accompanied by Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, was huge. No less than 10650 rockets weighing up to 6 pounds each rose into the night sky from a 410 ft long ornate Doric temple or ‘firework machine’5 – 6000 of them reserved to go up together in the finale6.
Robins’ request for two types of data: angle measurements from those close in, and simple confirmations of visibility from those further out, came with instructions:
The observing the angle which a rocket, when highest, makes with the horizon, is not difficult. For if it be a star-light night, it is easy to mark the last position of the rocket among the stars: whence, if the time of the night be known, the altitude of the point of the heavens corresponding thereto, may be found on a celestial globe. Or if this method be thought too complex, the same thing may be done by keeping the eye at a fixed place, and then observing on the side of a distant building, some known mark, which the rocket appears to touch when highest; for the altitude of that mark may be examined next day by a quadrant; or, if a level line be carried from the place where the eye was fixed to the point perpendicularly under the mark, a triangle may be formed, whose base and perpendicular will be in the same proportion as the distance of the observer from the fireworks, is to the perpendicular ascent of the rocket.
The Gentleman’s Magazine1November 1748
Bearing in mind astronomy and triangulation are skills likely absent from most readers’ day jobs, this is quite an intimidating, albeit educational, set of instructions. So much for the procedure; how did the results pan out?
There were some issues on the night, including a large portion of the Doric temple unexpectedly catching fire during the show, and various eye witness accounts suggest the event was a little lack-lustre. But the rockets went up, and George’s spin-doctors took care of any negative PR.
The response to Robins’ experiment was more disappointing, with only one report appearing in the follow up edition of the Gentleman’s Magazine, and that from a Welshman 138 miles away near Carmarthen:
I had a clear prospect of several miles eastward where I waited with impatience till near 10 o’clock, and then saw two flashes of light, one a few minutes after the other, that rose east of me to the height of about 15 degrees above the visible horizon. I don’t pretend that I saw any body of fire, only a blaze of light, which neither descended like a meteor, nor expanded itself abroad like a lightning, but ascended and died. Clouds interrupted, that I could see no more.
Thomas Ap Cymra, Gentleman’s Magazine, May 17497
Let’s remind ourselves what 138 miles looks like:
So, how believable is Thomas Ap Cymra’s report?
At this distance, a line-of-sight view of the rocket at the top of its trajectory is out of the question, thanks to the curvature of the Earth – never mind the Brecon Beacon mountain range. But we shouldn’t write Thomas off just yet. 6000 rockets going off together would make a hell of a flash, and we know lightning from thunderstorms can be seen from many miles away. And in the First World War there were reports of flashes from the fighting in France being visible from London.
In his full letter, Thomas logically argues why his observations could not have been meteors or lightning. Off the technical topic, he then questions the suitability and cost of the event, saying how he struggles to rationalise the irony of using fireworks to celebrate a military cessation. The moaning somehow makes his observations more credible.
All the same, a single response with no elevation data must have been a disappointment to Robins. And just as well he’d taken the belt-and-braces precaution of making some of his own elevation measurements, with the help of a friend stationed 4000 yards away in Cheapside,
From these measurements, taken with a sextant with the starry background as reference, Robins was able to publish in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, that the highest Green Park rockets had risen to 8.75 degrees above the horizon, equivalent to a height of 615 yards8.
Robins made further tests after the Green Park display, trusting to friends and colleagues placed at various locations tens of miles from London – itself a non-trivial task without mobile phones – and using rockets of more consistent specification9
We have to hand it to Robins, that despite a poor public response, his was a valiant effort to stir up interest and participation using the latest communications media available to him.
We should also remember The Gentleman’s Magazine was the first publication of its type (est. 1721) and the first to reach anything like a wide audience – albeit one excluding women and the not so well-to-do. The concept of a publicly visible two-way conversation via a publication was itself recent, having first appeared in pseudo form in the fictional dialogue between characters in the Spectator Magazine (1711-12). So maybe it was just all too new.
These days, I suppose Robins might suggest participants send him a geo-mapped digital photograph of the rockets. Some would understand what they were doing – others wouldn’t – but the data would still be good. But that brings us back to asking exactly who counts as a citizen scientist, which is a whole new question, and probably a good place to stop.
References and further reading
1. ‘A Geometrical Use proposed for ‘the Fire-Works’, Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol 18 Nov. 1748, p.488.
2. Fireworks: Pyrotechnic Arts and Sciences in European History. Simon Werrett, University of Chicago Press, 2010.
3. New Principles of Gunnery, Benjamin Robins, London, J.Nourse, 1742
5. A description of the machine for the fireworks; with all its ornaments, and a detail of the manner in which they are to be exhibited in St.James Park, Thursday, April 27th, 1749, on account of the General Peace, signed at Aix-la-Chappelle, October 7, 1748. Published by His Majesty’s Board of Ordnance. By Gaetano Ruggieri and Gioseppe Sarti.
6. The Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction. Vol 32, 1838, p.66
7. Fireworks Observed. Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol 19, May 1749, pp.217-18
8. Observations on the Height to Which Rockets Ascend; By Mr. Benjamin Robins F. R. S. Phil. Trans. 1749 46 491-496 131-133; doi:10.1098/rstl.1749.0025
9. An Account of Some Experiments, Made by Benjamin Robins Esq; F. R. S. Mr. Samuel Da Costa, and Several Other Gentlemen, in Order to Discover the Height to Which Rockets May Be Made to Ascend, and to What Distance Their Light May be Seen; by Mr. John Ellicott F. R. S. Phil. Trans. 1749 46 491-496 578-584; doi:10.1098/rstl.1749.0109
Modern revolvers have a mechanism that keeps them from firing accidentally if knocked or dropped. Before that, savvy owners learned to carry their weapon with an empty chamber under the hammer. Californian real-estate developer Clarence Austin was not among them.
Picture Austin, one May day in 1909, setting off on a peaceful fishing trip. He parks up his vehicle, ready to meet a connecting streetcar. Running late, he hurriedly unloads his gear, casually throwing a blanket roll to the sidewalk. As the roll strikes the ground, a forgotten pistol consealed in its folds discharges. The bullet rips through Austin’s knee, and lodges, somewhere, in his leg.
“I am shot!” Austin perceptively exclaims – according to the Los Angeles Herald1.
Bystanders rally and Austin is ambulanced home. A doctor arrives, and, with a strange electrical apparatus that emits invisible rays, locates and removes the offending slug. Austin Clarence will live to sell real-estate another day.
As luck would have it, Austin had picked the best possible neighbourhood west of the Rockies to shoot himself in – for his attending physician was Dr Adalbert Fenyes (1863-1937): M.D., neurologist, celebrated entomologist, all-round gentleman scientist, and – importantly for Austin – one of the very few early practitioners in medicinal X-rays. Fenyes lived in a city 10 miles northeast of Los Angeles, a place that Einstein once compared to nothing less than paradise: Pasadena.
Here in Pasadena it is like Paradise. Always sunshine and clear air, gardens with palms and pepper trees and friendly people who smile at one and ask for autographs.
Albert Einstein, 19312
I discovered Fenyes on a recent visit to the Pasadena Museum of History. Custodians of the Fenyes legacy, the museum is situated at the site of the former Fenyes Mansion at 170 North Orange Grove (now 470 West Walnut Street).
While not quite an A-Lister in the Einstein league, Adalbert, taken together with his accomplished artist and businesswoman wife Eva, give us a fascinating glimpse on a bygone age: a lost vignette of turn-of-the-century intellectual life in a city whose attraction for talented people, and especially scientists, persists. Fenyes also opens the door on two other Pasadena scientists I particularly admire: the astronomers George Ellery Hale, and Edwin Hubble: who, like the Fenyes’s, supported their city as well as their science.
Even the most conscientious scientists have to leave their laboratories and observatories sometime, and visiting their former homes and neighbourhoods – often remarkebly unchanged – helps fill that last 5% the biographies seem to miss. The Fenyes mansion is a case in point. You might recognise it from any number of Hollywood movies – most recently The Prestige: part of a tradition started with Eva Fenyes’s close association with the movie industry3. So too the bungalow at 707 South Oakland Avenue, where Albert and Elsa Einstein stayed when Albert visited Caltech in the 1930s.
Orange Grove Avenue has always been popular with the well to do, and not just film-stars; just down the road is the iconic Arts & Crafts Gamble House, once owned by David Gamble of Proctor and Gamble fame. Hale and Hubble also left their mark – as we shall see. But first up, what of Adalbert Fenyes….?
There are no direct British parallels to Fenyes – aristocrat son of a Hungarian Count, but he may be close to a Charles Darwin or John William Strutt – Baron Rayleigh (of Argon discovery and Rayleigh Scattering fame): gentlemen scientists with broad interests and the independent means to work to their own agendas.
Fenyes trained as a physician in Austria, and was doctoring in Egypt when he met American heiress Eva Scott Muse – while on her Grand Tour .
After a spell in Chicago, where Adelbert studied X-ray procedures, in 1896 the couple settled in Pasadena, moving to the new $20,000 mansion in 1907.
Multi-faceted Fenyes M.D. ran a physician’s office downtown – specialising in neurological problems – while Fenyes the entomologist wrote scholarly papers, built an insectorium in the mansion grounds, and travelled to collect specimens4 ; a two month trip to Mexico yielded no less than 10,000 beetles5. Fenyes’s beetle collection is now with the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.
Fenyes discovered several new genera and species within the order Coleoptera (beetles). Always the gentleman, here is one he named after his wife:
While Adalbert’s insect research appeared in learned journals, the bug-hunting trips became the stuff of society page gossip, alongside the movements of movie stars and business tycoons. Fenyes repaid the attention, albeit to the favoured few, with popular lantern slide talks on his beetle research – including samples – to Pasadena’s exclusive Twilight Club (all male) and Shakespeare Club (all female). The civicly framed “Insects and Their Value to the Community”(1904) 6 betrays Fenyes’ skill as a science communicator, tuning into his business-minded audience. Even insects had to pull their weight in those industrious times.
Within a year of Wilhelm Röntgen’s 1895 discovery of X-rays, and Michael Pupin’s method of imaging developed the following year, medical applications started to appear. Fittingly for our story, one of Pupin’s early exposures, or skiagraphs, shows a hand riddled with self-inflicted buckshot7. In the case of Clarence Austin’s leg, Fenyes was able to see the location and orientation of the bullet, and identify cloth fragments carried into the wound. By replacing the photographic plate with a fluorescent screen it was possible to operate ‘live’, the surgeon’s skeletised hands and instruments visible hovering over the patient’s wound (Gillanders8 ). Portable equipment run off car batteries was in use by 18999.
A prominent researcher in the field, Fenyes led a session on ‘X-ray therapy’ at a 1903 meeting11 of the Southern California Electro-Medical Society in Los Angeles, alongside sessions on ‘Galvanism’ and ‘Static Therapy’. Fenyes studied the effects of X-rays on the kidneys and other organs, and for the treatment of non-malignant skin disease like acne and eczema 12 , personally escaping the worst of the radiation burns and illness that seriously injured or killed many contemporary practitioners. When he moved to Pasadena, he had one of the rare X-ray machines shipped to his home – possibly the equipment used on Austin.
If Pasadena had any single founder, it was George Ellery Hale
Kevin Starr in his history of California13.
Our next urbane utopian is Chicago born George Ellery Hale (1868-1938): best known – at least among astronomers – as the instigator, designer, and builder of the world’s greatest astronomical observatories and telescopes.
Inspired by his first sight of the Lick Observatory as a young man on his California honeymoon, Hale ‘made-it-so’ for the 40-inch Yerkes refractor in Wisconsin, the 60-inch and 100-inch reflecting telescopes on Mount Wilson, and the 200-inch ‘Hale’ reflector on Mount Palomar.
Possessed since childhood of a high-energy passion and interest in all things, Hale explored, studied, experimented, and built machines in his laboratory workshop: basically doing all the fun stuff kids are arguably over-protected from today (anyone whose father bought them a steam-driven lathe for Christmas, as Hale’s did, is bound to turn out right in my book).
As the calendar flipped into the twentieth century, 32 year old Hale, already an established solar astronomer with the invention of the spectroheliograph under his belt, was keen to progress research on stellar evolution started at the Yerkes Obervatory. Hale had in mind a series of newer, bigger, and more capable solar instruments, the siting of which, in terms of atmospheric conditions, would be critical. In 1903, his global scouting mission reached Pasadena.
At first, the test observations looked hopeless. From ground level, a shimmering heat from the baking dessert distorted the Sun’s image. But tests at the top of Mount Wilson, a 5700 foot peak in the San Gabriel Mountains overlooking the city, told a different story. Here, where extensive tree cover insulated the ground and muffled the disabling thermals, conditions were perfect. Mount Wilson commanded a World Class view of our nearest star14.
And so the love affair with Pasadena began, when in 1904 Hale took up the directorship of the Mount Wilson Solar Observatory. Dull, wintery, climates depressed Hale; Southern California would do just fine.
Hale’s contribution to astronomy is well known. Less well known, even I suspect among some Pasadenans – is that the city’s California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Huntington Library, Civic Center, and a host of other organisations, institutes, and clubs, only exist because of Hale’s energy and commitment.
No one could be associated with Hale without falling at once under the charm of his vivid and inspiring personality
Walter S Adams, Biographical Memoir15, 1939
Comfortable in the intellectual gentility of Pasadena society, Hale immediately slipped into a circle of friendship, influence and wealth where he would progressively share his vision of Pasadena as nothing less than a ‘New Athens’ of the West. His influence on millionaire industrialist Andrew Carnegie had secured Mount Wilson, but there were always new telescopes to be built. Hale kept potential sponsors and the general public informed of his work through a series of popular talks, including – one year into the project – an upate to the good ladies of the Shakespeare Club:
Prof. George K. Hale, the famous director of the Mount Wilson solar observatory, left a driving snowstorm this evening at the observatory and came down to Pasadena to give his first lecture in this city. It was at the instance of the Shakespeare Club, and the beautiful auditorium of the clubhouse was crowded for the welcome occasion. Prof. Hale spoke in an informal manner of the building of the observatory, the difficulty of transporting the instruments and material and of the non-technical progress of the work of investigation….
In his recent photographs of the milky way from the top of Mount Wilson, Prof. Hale remarked that the wonderful photographs indicated in a very definite way the remarkable transparency of the atmosphere in the vicinity of the observatory.
Los Angeles Herald, 190516
The Los Angeles Herald has it slightly wrong here, as Hale’s first Pasadena outing was a year earlier on 28 January 1904, with a talk on ‘The Evolution of the Stars’ to the Throop Institute17: the educational facility Hale would gradually transform and in 1920 see formally renamed as the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Hale also gave popular talks to the Friday Morning Club in Los Angeles and most likely, the Twilight and Valley Hunt Clubs of Pasadena where he was a member.
Four years later in 1909 and things have moved on a bit. Adalbert Fenyes, on his way home from an X-ray session with a certain Clarence Austin, looks up (we suppose) and sees a shiny white tower on the mountain crest: shiny, because the paint on Hale’s new 60-foot solar telescope tower – completed in the Fall of 1908 – is barely dry.
The ‘Snow’ horizontal solar telescope, borrowed from Yerkes, was already at the site; but this new instrument made possible Hale’s most important discovery: that the sun has magnetic fields18 and their association with sunspots. For a description of how he did it, see here (USC history page).
Both the 60-foot, and a 150-foot instrument from 1912 are still used for research today.
Solar telescopes follow the Sun with a moving plane mirror, or coelostat, often mounted at the top of a tower. The light is directed through a stationary lens to a focus below ground, where, because it’s not being slewed around on the end of a long tube, all manner of equipment can be assembled, including Hale’s spectroheliograph to analyse the Sun’s image at specific wavelengths of light. At Mount Wilson, Hale took these ideas to new extremes of scale and sophistication.
All in all, 1908 was a busy year. The solar tower was completed, but so too was the even more ambitious 60-inch reflecting telescope – easily the world’s largest, and this time for night-time use. Bearing in mind the Sun appears 400,000 times brighter than the Moon, and 13 billion times brighter than the next brightest star, Sirius, you need a much larger lens or mirror at night to collect enough scarce photons to make objects visible. Hale trudged his heavy 60-inch diameter glass mirror, and a 150 tons of supporting telescope steelwork, up Mount Wilson by mule train and a primitive mountain truck.
The lead up to the delicate mirror’s installation on 7th December 1908 must have been a particularly stressful time for Hale, and may go some way to explain why on the 19th November he got arrested following a high-speed motorbike chase with the Pasadena Police Department19,20: an offense that cost him $10. (1908 was also a bad year for the “nervous attacks” Hale suffered from for much of his life25.) But it was all worth it, and on the night of 20th December Hale was rewarded with an early Christmas present: the best naked-eye view of the Orion Nebula anyone had seen up to that point.
When Colonel Griffith J Griffith visited Mount Wilson in 1908, and looked through the new 60-inch, the views inspired him to fund the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles’s Griffith Park, proclaiming:
If all mankind could look through that telescope it would change the world!
Colonel Griffith J Griffith, 1908
Today, visitors can look through a 12-inch refractor telescope at Griffith for free, or hire the 60-inch on Mount Wilson at $900 for a half-night or $1700 for the whole night.
1908 was a challenging year for Hale in the roadcraft department. As well as the high speed run in with police in November, he had already suffered a collision with a motor vehicle in March that year: in which he “made a flying leap and landed safely in the road. The front part of his motorcycle was ground to pieces under the wheels of the car.”21
Private road vehicles were popular, available, and accessible to monied Pasadenans. Electric vehicles were favoured by ladies en route to the opera, keen to avoid soiling their gowns with horse muck or the oil and swarf of the internal combustion engine. Eva Fenyes drove one: on one occasion mounting the pavement and virtually inverting the car through a plate glass window22.
The big telescopes aside, I particularly like Hale’s attitude to: (a) investment in science, and (b) the amateur’s role in science. His approach to investment, not just in money, but in time and recognising the need for a long view, is still relevant in the age of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), and, indeed, super-telescopes. His enthusiastic support for amateurs resonates with the burgeoning trend for so-called Citizen Science. Writing in 1905, with the challenge of equipping Mount Wilson ahead of him, Hale is uncompromising on what it takes to make progress in scientific research:
A man of science must so direct his efforts as to secure the largest results not within a single month or a single year, but within the entire period of his activities. He can thus afford to devote much time and effort to details of construction, if these promise sufficient advantage in the end. He must work years, if need be, to secure such means of investigation as appear to him needful.
The Development of a New Observatory, Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific23, Vol. 17, No. 101, April 10, 1905
Also ahead of the curve on pan-disciplinary working and information exchange – something we struggle with today – Hale often highlighted in his talks the mutual benefits enjoyed when astronomy works closely with physics and chemistry: for example, the spectroscope for determining chemistry in the Sun and distant stars. Hale is popularly known as the father of astrophysics because of the close links he fostered between the disciplines of physics and astronomy.
Hale’s equally unrestrained enthusiasm for amateur science positively bubbles over in his essay Work for the Amateur Astronomer24, where he recalls his own evolution from schoolboy experimenter roots:
But neither in limited or unlimited resources nor in association with public or private laboratory do we find the criterion that marks the amateur. Nor is he to be mistaken for the dilettante of the popular imagination. The amateur is in fact a true lover of knowledge for its own sake, one who works because he cannot help it, swept on by a passion for research which he attempts neither to explain nor to curb, an enthusiasm which carries him over obstacles too high to be surmounted by the perfunctory student or the man without zeal. To the sane enthusiast, whether his talents be large or small, great advances are possible. An impelling interest, even if backed by only a very slender stock of knowledge, may accomplish more than all the learning of the schools...
The passion for research springs early, and the boy of twelve may already feel within him the desire to add to the world’s knowledge. He consults his books, and is fascinated by the experiments they outline. Who can forget his thrill of excitement when the bubbles of oxygen, issuing from the heated retort, rose one by one thru the water-filled bottle, inverted over its tank! The delicious possibility of an explosion (realized all too often with prematurely ignited jets of hydrogen!) and the proud consciousness of actually venturing into the field of the original investigator, are experiences to be felt but not described. Then there was the winding of the first induction coil, the anxious test of the length of its spark, and the dim realization that here was an instrument of research applicable in many fields…
“In recent years, as I have pushed with larger and larger telescopes into the depths of space, I have often been forced to confess that the astronomer never beholds sights more wonderful than those which a drop of ditch-water, on the stage of the cheapest microscope, will afford to any boy.
WORK FOR THE AMATEUR ASTRONOMER, 191624
All good things, and people, come to an end. His mother feared he would burn out early, but in the event Hale put in a very respectable innings before his health, and his psychological demons, caught up with him. Hale suffered a serious nervous breakdown25 in 1921, which led to a wind-down and eventual full resignation from the Mount Wilson directorship. When Hale started out in astronomy, his ever-encouraging father built him an observatory equipped with a 12-inch refractor. Now, in his retirement, he commissioned his own solar observatory for private research – in Pasadena of course.
I drove down Holloway Road to check the site out, but the observatory building on this quiet residential street is not accessible. Looking beyond the ‘armed response’ signs that depressingly clutter many of the driveways round here, the dome at least is still visible. It all looks a bit incongruous – but appealingly eerie. (More on the observatory here at Palomar Skies blog.)
But before leaving Mount Wilson, Hale delivered his greatest telescope project so far: the 100-inch ‘Hooker’ reflecting telescope (1917).
Unlike the solar telescopes, the 100-inch was a laviathan of the night, with two and a half times the light gathering power of the 60-inch reflector Hale installed in 1908. It would remain the world’s largest telescope until Hale outdid himself one final time with a 200-inch instrument on Mount Palomar (operational in 1948, he never saw it completed). And the arrival of the 100-inch, as one element of a perfect storm of capability, knowledge, and inspiration that was about to redefine our concept of the universe, is the perfect cue for our last résident duparadis : Edwin Powell Hubble.
Thanks to Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Brian Cox, it’s no great mystery to most of us that we live on a planet, near a star, in one of many galaxies that make up the expanding universe.
But in 1919, when 30 year old Edwin Powell Hubble (1889-1953) returned from the First World War to work for George Hale at Mount Wilson, that was not the case. William Herschel, as early as 1785, estimated the shape of the galaxy by counting the number of stars he could see in different directions. But he had no idea about size, and assumed the fuzzy patches between the stars – he called them nebulae – were all contained inside the one collection. Hubble was not the first to question this picture of the universe. Dark lanes in the spiral shaped Andromeda nebula looked something like the dark lanes in our own Milky Way: so were we looking at something like a copy of ourselves? And the red-shifted spectra of some nebula suggested they might be separate entities. But solid evidence was lacking, and it would take Hale’s 100-inch telescope, recent discoveries about variable stars, and Hubble’s conviction and skill – a perfect storm – to prove we are part of something much larger.
Using the 100-inch telescope, Hubble could for the first time resolve individual stars in the Andromeda and other nebulae. And by measuring the brightness and periodicity of Cepheid Variables – special ‘standard candle’ stars whose absolute brightness and periodicity Henrietta Leavitt had in 1908 showed to be related, he could calculate the distance of both the stars and their containing nebula.
In 1923, Hubble did exactly that for Cepheid variable Hubble V1 in Andromed. In a delicious example of restrained scientific under-statement, the magic distance number: 285,000 parsecs, or 929,100 light years, appears almost lost in the text of Hubble’s 1925 address to the American Astronomical Association26 (reminiscent of Crick and Watson’s first paper on DNA in its down-play of implications). Our galaxy is 100,000 light years across, so Hubble had, figuratively, expanded our universe by a factor of ten – and that based on Andromeda, which, cosmically speaking, is virtually on top of us. We now think the universe is 150 billion light years across. Hubble went on to measure the red shifts of many different galaxies, which showed these ‘island universes’ to be moving away from each other at a rate proportional to their distance. Not only was the universe larger than we ever imagined – it was expanding too. Hubble’s photographs of Andromeda, with the Cepheids he measured marked in his own hand, are on display in the Huntington Library.
Hubble’s announcement may have set the scholarly hearts of American Astronomical Association members racing, leaving the popular scientific press of the day to translate for the rest of us – as in Science News-Letter‘s enthusiastic headline27:
Sky Pinwheels Are Stellar Universes 6,000,000,000,000,000,000 Miles Away
The Science News-Letter, Dec. 1924
I make it 5.5 x 1018 miles, but close enough. Of Hubble’s observations of a 700,000 light year distant cluster in Sagitarius, the Daily Princetonian28 declared:
Another Universe Exists Beyond Telescope Reach
Daily Princetonian, January 1926
Again, not entirely accurate, but I guess people got the idea. I dutifully drove past Hubble’s house on Woodstock Road, San Marino, where he lived from 1925 till his death in 1953. Designed by Joseph Kucera in 1925, it is the only National Historic Landmark in Pasadena’s neighbour city. It’s also situated in a very nice spot – handy for the Huntington Library, and looks very little changed from earlier photographs. (And today well out of the reach of all but the wealthiest early-career scientists.)
I guess out of the three: Fenyes, Hale, and Hubble – Hubble’s ghost has had the best popular run, mostly down to the space telescope named after him.
But Hubble’s original work, that literally expanded our horizons a billion-fold, is not forgotten, and in 2010 was specially honoured when the telescope bearing his name was turned to once more monitor the brightness of Hubble variable V1 in Andromeda. When the data were analysed, the period of variability derived from the modern measurements was found to be in agreement with the historical values. Or to put it another way, while you are more likely to be run down by a Tesla than a Waverley today, the light curve, like much of Pasadena, has barely changed.
1. Real Estate Dealer Accidentally Hurt. Los Angeles Herald, May 7, 1909
27. ‘Sky Pinwheels Are Stellar Universes 6,000,000,000,000,000,000 Miles Away’, The Science News-Letter, Vol.5. No.191, Dec 6, 1924, pp.2-3. Pub. Society for Science and the Public.
28. Daily Princetonian, Volume 46, Number 170, 25 January 1926
View Pasadena Science in a larger map Further Reading Includes examples of Eva Fenyes painting, article in Hometown Pasadena Journey to Palomar video: Includes background on Hale, more on the 200-inch Palomar telescope, and a look to the future and the planned 30 metre telescope.
Erasmus set up his medical practice in Litchfield, where he lived from 1756 to 1781. His house, now the Erasmus Darwin House Museum, is close to the magnificent cathedral, and well worth a visit. (Samuel Johnson also lived in Litchfield, so you can visit his house while you’re there.)
Erasmus spent the last two years of his life at Breadsall Priory, where he died on April 18th 1802, aged 70.
To round off, here are three excellent and recent videos on Erasmus courtesy of History West Midlands:
Erasmus Darwin at The Heart of The Litchfield Enlightenment
Drugs have at least two names: a generic or scientific name, and then any number of manufacturers’ brand names for what is essentially the same thing.
So the generic names for two well-known painkillers are aspirin (acetylsalicyclic acid) and paracetamol (acetaminophen), but on Wikipedia you’ll find at least a hundred alternative brand names for paracetamol alone. My favourites are the cuddly ‘Panda’ and the bemusing ‘Europain’.
It’s done of course to differentiate a commercial product, or identify a mixture of drugs – like aspirin and caffeine in Anadin. But it hinders keeping track of particular chemicals that suit you, for a cold or whatever. Also annoying are brands that list different drugs by application under the same headline brand, especially when the contents vary between countries.
As much as I enjoy banging on about how brands can obfuscate choice and cloud rational decision-making – and not just in medicines – this post is really about that photo of a building above, that I took yesterday in Regent Square, London. It’s an unlikely and incongruous survivor. A wall covered in early hand-painted advertisements for medicines from a bygone age. It’s a ghost sign.
Probably Victorian, when salve and laxatives were all the rage, the full spiel for one of the products, ‘King’s Citrate of Magnesia’, made by Bates & Company, reads:
King’s Citrate of Magnesia
Invented in 1844
The Original Safest
W.W. King was a Liverpool chemist of mixed fortune. I found him listed twice in sources for 1851. First as a prize winner in the Catalogue of the Great Exhibition1 – for his ‘effervescent citrate of magnesia’, but also in Charles Dickens’s Household Narrative2 for that year, in his regular round-up of bankrupts.
Citrate of Magnesia induces a Motion
It was no secret that the article was entirely wanting in both citric acid and magnesia3
The Pharmaceutical Journal and Transactions, October 1, 1870
Magnesium Citrate, or Citrate of Magnesia, is still used as a uncontentious saline laxative and magnesium supplement. But it has a 19th century history that echos some of today’s complexities around drug names, descriptions, and branding.
We expect boxes and bottles of medicine to contain what the label says. But by 1870, a situation had developed where products labelled citrate of magnesia were more often than not found to contain a mixture of “tartaric acid, sugar, and carbonate of soda3 “. It made for a nice fizzy summer drink, but little else.
A hapless public bought the mis-named drug in spite of the unrealistically low street price; it wasn’t like they could slip on glasses and read the small print, because compulsory ingredients listing hadn’t been invented. That some brands, including King’s (of our wall fame), appeared to ship the real deal didn’t simplify the big picture.
All this threatened the reputation of professional pharmacists, so, as reported in the October 1st 1870 edition of the Pharmaceutical Journal and Transactions3 , some of them met to discuss a formal motion that would set things right – they hoped.
What’s in a name?
19th century Britons got their medicines from a variety of sources: via a doctor’s prescription, from an apothecary, chemist, or druggist, but also as commercial articles from the general store or local grocer. It’s like us going to the doctor, the pharmacy at Boots or RiteAid, or shopping at Tescos or Walmart. The difference is we get the same drug wherever we go, while for 19th Century folk it was more of a lottery. General commercial outlets were especially problematic – where unscrupulous quacks plied their mischievous trade of old. At worst, the more renegade outlets might be guilty of “applying definite chemical names to articles not having the composition thereby designated3 “.
The pharmacists thought renaming the product might be the answer, but that idea just got them in a mess. Do you call a thing what it is, or what it should be? Suggestions included “citrate of magnesia of commerce“, “citrate of magnesia so called” , “citrate of magnesia of pharmacy“, “granular effervescent citrate of magnesia“, or the more vague “granular effervescent salt“. Also names closer to the common composition, like “granulated tartrate of soda“; or “citro-tartrate of soda” – whose sponsor claimed special privilege because it was already listed in the British Pharmacopoeia (an early list of approved drug standards published in 1867).
In the end, relative sense prevailed, with options smacking of inaccuracy and deception, however pragmatic, being rejected in favour of scientific purity.
…this Conference, as representing and expressing the highest aims of pharmacy, ought to maintain a scientific purity and exactness in its nomenclature3
The Pharmaceutical Journal and Transactions, October 1, 1870
Not that everyone was behind an honest naming regime. It would confuse the public, said some, and open a Pandora’s Box of renaming obligations; hundreds of ambiguous favourites would be challenged: from ‘Salt of Lemons’, to ‘Seidlitz Powders’, to ‘Soda Water’.
From this strained conflict of pragmatism with scientific integrity a final motion was passed: a bit lame on specific actions, but a signal that professional pharmacists would not countenance inaccurate naming driven by commerce or tradition. At least for Citrate of Magnesia that is, by now firmly established as the tip of a misnomer ice-berg.
That this Conference is of opinion that the term ‘citrate of magnesia’ as applied to the ordinary granulated preparation of commerce is a misnomer, and ought to be discouraged as inconsistent with the true interests of pharmacy.3 (The final form of the motion)
The Pharmaceutical Journal and Transactions, October 1, 1870
Motions from professional bodies are all well and good, but they’re not law. ‘Discouragement’ without legislation is toothless, and laws in this area had been slow in coming and often contested.
Earlier legislation, like the Apothecaries Act of 1815, defined standards and training for licensed apothecaries without actually outlawing unqualified practitioners, druggists, or quacks. The Medical Act of 18584 was more about regulating doctors, and explicitly excluded from its provision chemists, druggists, etc. involved in the sale of medicines (although it did action the earlier mentioned British Pharmacopoeia).
The Pharmacy Acts of 1852 and 1868, established under the auspices of the pharmacists’ own professional society – the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain (est 1841) gave them powers to control drugs, and may explain why this was such an issue in 1870. But with those acts focused on poisons and dangerous drugs, legal actions against peddlers of mis-named versions of the pedestrian citrate of magnesia were brought under the more generic Food Adulteration Act (1860) or Adulteration of Food and Drugs Act (1872). Coincidently, these same legislations helped reduce the sawdust content of sausages, and alum and chalk in bread.
In this 1873 case, the defendant was found guilty under the Adulteration of Food and Drugs Act (1872), and fined £10 – about £1000 today – plus the cost of analysing his product:
Gradually things moved along, with further legislation on dangerous and controlled drugs appearing in the 1920s. The Medicines Act 1968 split drugs into the prescription, pharmacy, and general sales categories we have now. The naming of medicines in the UK is today administered by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), an agency essentially tasked with resolving the sort of issues our pharmacist friends were facing in 1870.
There’s no doubt controls over the naming and description of medicines has progressed massively since 1870. But with outstanding issues around the labelling and promotion of homeopathic products, and the classification and control of herbal remedies, the job’s far from over.
1. Official Catalogue of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations 1851, Cambridge University Press, 2011
2. The Household Narrative of 1851, Ed Charles Dickens
3. The Pharmaceutical Journal and Transactions, October 1, 1870, P.275
4. Medical Act of 1858 (here at legislation.gov.uk)
Until last week, I’d only seen the Worcestershire town of Great Malvern from the air. Flying light aircraft in the nineties, one of my favourite sightseeing tours was to head out west from my local airfield near Stratford, turn south over Worcester racecourse towards the Malvern Hills, and watch the sun set over the waters of the Severn estuary.
The ‘Malverns’ are odd. An isolated stretch of peaks, nine miles long and 1394 feet at the highest point. Rising half way up the Eastern side, like a carpet pushed up against a wall, is the town of Great Malvern. In an aeroplane it’s a nice spot to practice steep-banked turns, while distracting your passenger with one of England’s greener and pleasanter views. We mostly got cloud and rain last week – so here’s a view in brighter conditions:
Amongst the famous folk associated with Malvern are C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien, whose experiences walking together in the hills, it’s said, fed into their fantasy worlds. For sure, I can see how elves and dwarves might emerge from the cloudy scrumpy cider we sampled at the Unicorn pub – the authors’ favourite after-hike watering hole.
The composer Sir Edward Elgar was a local, and rests with his wife in nearby Little Malvern.
And the private school Malvern College gave many influential political, military, and media people their educational start – including journalist Jeremy Paxman; but not so many scientists or engineers it seems.
That said, it’s a scientist, Charles Darwin, that I associate most strongly with Malvern. A regular visitor from 1849, Darwin made the two-day journey to Malvern to partake of the town’s popular water therapy, hoping it might relieve the chronic vomiting and headaches that plagued him for much of his life (and caused some now think by Chagas’s disease1 contracted on his Beagle voyage to South America). He would later return with his seriously ill daughter Annie.
Ten year old Annie had weakened from scarlet fever over the previous two years, and, with her condition worsening, on 24th March 1851 Darwin made the trip with her to Malvern and Dr James Gully.
Pioneers of hydrotherapy, or hydropathy as they called it, Gully and his colleague James Wilson set up the first of several specialist clinics in the town. Like other spa towns in England, the geographic and economic growth of Malvern was largely driven by the perceived value of its natural waters.
Despite Gully’s efforts, Annie was beyond any water-cure, and Darwin was to leave her in Malvern, permanently, a month later. She died at their lodgings in Montreal House on the Worcester Road, and is buried in the grounds of nearby Great Malvern Priory – literally a stone’s throw from our hotel. Gully described Annie’s condition at death as a “Bilious fever with typhoid character”2; it’s now thought more likely she died from tuberculosis.
From a modern perspective, Gully’s water treatments were doomed to failure. The enthusiastic Gully might wrap a patient in wet sheets, subject them to heavy douches from above and below, or enroll them for a course of ‘spinal washing’.
The core water treatment might be augmented with anything from hill walks to homeopathy, to clairvoyancey, to what amounted to a light baking under oil lamps. Hydropathy’s enthusiastic adoption and questionable effectiveness groups it with the electrical and magnetic treatments popular with Victorian physicians at the time, eager to apply new insights on nature, however misguided, to human well-being.
Perceived benefits were most likely due less to the watery aspects of Gully’s therapy, and more to the generally healthy context of their delivery. Plain eating, abstention from alcohol, and daily exercise in a calming environment could do a lot for a bloated Victorian gentleman. But that didn’t stop Gully and like-minded advocates publishing elaborate treatises and supposedly affirmative case studies4 directly linking water therapy to the cure of all kinds of disease.
Darwin hung in with Gully’s ideas for years before concluding any benefit was limited and purely psychosomatic. He never bought into homeopathy, and seems to have gone along with the more spiritual add-ons from Gully’s palette to keep their relationship. Darwin was open to new ideas, but he always judged them against the standard of reason.
Annie was a special favourite among Darwin’s children, and her death took a lasting toll on his mental state. The poignant memorial he wrote to Annie is here at the Darwin Correspondence Project5
Annie’s story also formed the background to the movie Creation (my earlier review here), with Paul Bettany as Darwin, Jennifer Connelly as his wife Emma, and Bill Paterson as Dr Gully. The film, based on Darwin’s descendent Randal Keynes’s book Annie’s Box, is worth watching if you can forgive a bit of historical license-taking (for one thing, Darwin’s other children don’t age through a series of flashbacks involving Annie). Also, note that the town where they shoot the Malvern scenes, which I can now vouch has the feel of the place, is actually Bedford-on-Avon).
2. Darwin, Desmond and Moore, Pub.Michael Joseph, 1991, p.384
3. Hydropathy, or, The water-cure: its principles, modes of treatment, &c., illustrated with many cases : compiled chiefly from the most eminent English authors on the subject. Shew, Joel, 1816-1855. New York : Wiley & Putnam, 1844. Link to text at U.S. Library of Medicine here.
4. The Water Cure in Chronic Disease. James Manby Gully, M.D., 1850, John Churchill, London
You never know what unexpected quirky stuff is going to show up if you keep your eyes open.
This afternoon, Erin and I visited the Pasadena Museum of California Art to see an exhibition of works by Edgar Payne. We’re both fans of American plein-air painting, and Payne was a master of the technique – so the exhibition was a great success. But parking up, we found the Museum’s garage had its own artistic charm.
The graffiti is by artist Kenny Scharf, and instantly caught my eye with its images of rocket ships and swirling galaxies. The garage – or Kosmic Kavern – is the colorful legacy of an exhibition of Scharf’s work in the gallery proper in 2004 – his graffiti in the garage was just never cleaned off! Scharf’s work is influenced by the 1962 animated comedy sit-com The Jetsons, and there are other bits of space and nuclear iconography from the Golden Age of American Science spotted around – like the mushroom cloud and atom-swirl.
Some of the Jetson’s techno-utopia became a reality. But not, unfortunately, the aerocar or three-day week.
Medicinal whiskey? Sounds like a joke doesn’t it. But from midnight on 17th January 1920, this was the real deal in the USA, and one of the very few ways you’d legitimately get your hands on booze until the repeal of Prohibition in December 1933.
I found this old (regretably empty) case yesterday in the back of a garage – the kind of place all such boxes migrate to over the years. It once contained Rye Whiskey made by the New Hellam Distillery company in Pennsylvania and distributed by John A Dougherty & Sons; from the stamping on the box, made in 1919 and bottled in 1931.
In the build-up to the passing of the Volstead Act that enabled prohibition, the various evangelical groups and temperance advocates sponsoring the legislation downplayed evidence for the medicinal properties of alcohol (1). It was the sort of controversy reserved today for psychoactive drugs like marijuana and psilocybin.
Like any controlled medicine, you would need a prescription to get some.
I haven’t found a definitive list of conditions that warranted alcohol as a cure – just vague references to whiskey as a ‘tonic’, whatever that means, used to soothe stomach conditions, nervous complaints, and to aid sleep. Today, we recognize the benefit of moderate alcohol consumption for the prevention or amelioration of conditions including heart disease, and specific drinks – including whiskey – pop up now and again for a special mention.
Other exemptions to the Volstead Act allowed wine for sacremental purposes, and bakers could use syrups derived from alcohol for cakes. Uses in scientific research and industrial applications were also okay. But in general, if you could easily drink it, it was out (2).
(1) A Prohibition Problem: Liquor as Medicine 1920–1933. Jones BC, J Hist Med Allied Sci (1963) XVIII (4): 353-369. doi: 10.1093
(2) Discussion and full reproduction of the Volstead Act clarifying exemptions here
Those crazy Victorian inventors. What can you do with them? Whenever I research a history project, some totally unconnected but wonderful distraction like this shows up and wants sharing.
Maybe that’s how inventor James Wilcox thought about his ‘profile likeness’ doorknob keepsake idea from the Victorian era, reported in an 1838 edition of (take a deep breath) the Mechanics’ Magazine, Museum, Register, Journal and Gazette: one of the many popular journals at the time disseminating a veritable gush of 19th century science and engineering.
At first glance I thought this was about profiling a door knob and sticking it back on the door; but that wouldn’t really work – would it. No, Wilcox’s breakthrough technology involves filing the profile of your head into a steel tool, and using it to turn a likeness into an old wooden doorknob. Cutting the thus-profiled piece into slices gives you a whole bunch of keepsakes for handing out to friends and acquaintances. Inspired!
Okay, I’m taking the Mickey a bit because it’s such an off-the-wall thing, not to say off-the-door thing, to spend your time on. But in all seriousness, there seem to have been a lot of men (at least mainly men were visible) like Wilcox around, who, variously tucked away in workshops, cottages, and garden sheds, had the will and wherewithal to have a go at the various engineering challenges of the day. And even if some ideas were silly and others came to nought, ordinary folk still felt they had the right and ability to contribute – although with increasing complexity and specialisation that was becoming ever harder; it’s almost impossible today.
Hey, I like Wilcox’s idea – a kind of wooden business card or Carte de Visite as the Victorians would have it. It’s not like you’d forget a guy who slipped you a slice of his door knob.
I also like Wilcox’s self-effacing humility, where after he says “If this has ever been done before, by any other person, I am not aware of it” he goes on to concede there’s still room for improvement – if only that messy screwed piece at the back was done away with. Ah, the compromises one has to make for rapid prototyping, or as Wilcox explains in value-added detail right to the end “My mandrill having a female screw, I am obliged to screw the piece into it; but with a male screw, the operation can be done much neater.”
There you go. A little whiff of the Great in Great Britain :-P.
I guess at times we all put up a mask in public. We might even have a bit of a dark side kept under wraps most of the time. But there’s something extra-disturbing when our heroes show a side to them we never knew, especially when it’s at odds with the comfortable stereotype they’ve come to represent.
Take doctors for example: helpful, trustworthy folk, blessed with skills in beneficent care and correcting surgery. Yet Lars Tharp, talking about Hogarth and medicine at the Foundling Museum yesterday, reminded me of at least one medical man with a shadow over him, and a dark side literally demarcated by the geography of his home.
Those who have read Wendy Moore’s biography The Knife Man will know I’m talking about John Hunter – traditionally tagged with the strap-line ‘Father of Modern Surgery’ – as he doubtless was.
That was almost an accolade he could celebrate in his own lifetime, within the genteel and elegantly decorated reception rooms of his Leicester Square mansion. Yet the learning behind Hunter’s reputation wasn’t gained in his salon, but in the less well publicised back rooms and tiered operating theatre, fed by grisly subjects for anatomy arriving all too timely through the back entrance on shabby Castle Street.
Hunter had cleverly bought the house onto which his Leicester Square residence backed, and built his museum and operating theatre between the two – creating separate worlds.
Not surprisingly, scholars credit Hunter’s situation as the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Jekyl and Hyde.
Incidentally, Hunter was also in his day the top expert on venereal disease, and it’s thought likely he intentionally infected himself with syphilis via his penis for the sake of research. So despite his unconventional sourcing strategy for bodies, at least he wasn’t selfish.
Tharp mentioned Hunter only in passing, but a further remark he made puts me in mind of another scientist with a dark side – Isaac Newton, no less.
The Newton we imagine sitting under a tree, watching apples drop, benevolently ruminating his prisms and calculus, is a far cry from the Master of the Mint Isaac Newton, who doggedly pursued forgers and clippers (they cut bits of valuable metal off coins to sell) to a horrifying death at the Tyburn gallows. (There’s an excellent account of Newton’s life at the mint in Thomas Levenson’s Newton and the Counterfeiter).
Tharp’s case didn’t implicate Newton personally, but dealt with the particularly harrowing story of a mother found guilty of clipping and awaiting execution at Newgate, pleading with the Foundling Hospital to take care of her child.
Her child was saved, but she went on to be burned at the stake all the same; think about that next time you deface the coin of the realm steadying a wonky table leg with a 2p piece (do your own research as to the true present-day hazard of this heinous sin).
So what other scientists’ dark secrets have come out through history to muddy their fantasy image.
There’s Einstein: a nice old guy who wouldn’t harm a fly, right? Wrong – at least as far as his family were concerned. Einstein cheated on his wife, set out unreasonable conditions for their marriage to continue, and paid little attention to his children. And while we accept Einstein was human like the rest of us, that’s somehow more information than we want to hear.
There’s often a conflict in the minds of scientists who choose to do war work: like building bombs, weapon systems, or other enablers of physical destruction; and there’s still a debate around the social responsibility scientists should bear for the outcomes of their work (although I sense it’s more settled that scientists should indeed feel that obligation). Closer to home, as a humble chemical engineer in peacetime 1980s Britain, I lacked the opportunity or temptation to get conflicted in that way, but, for sure, the most interesting and rewarding jobs for my physics and electronics buddies were defence related. I guess Robert Oppenheimer, reluctantly self-styled Destroyer of Worlds and leader of the atomic bomb Manhattan Project, is the text-book example in this category, although if there’s one guy truly qualified for the E-word on that team it’s probably giddy hydrogen bomb fan Edward Teller.
Fritz Haber is another example. The Haber process for making ammonia was hugely useful and constructive in the manufacture of fertiliser. But Haber’s dark association with poison gas manufacture for Germany in the first world war – captured in Tony Harrison’s play Square Rounds – caused his vilification to this day.
It’s an imperfect comparison, but as a scientist whose work ultimately saved millions of lives – through the food produced using ammonia fertilisers, but at the cost of lives lost to gas and explosives, Haber shares some common ground with surgeon William Hunter. How much faster did surgery move along because society, with a bit of convenient blind eye turning, allowed Hunter access to the bodies he needed? (Related to this idea, I’ve most recently been intrigued as to where we’d be had some of the more questionable early twentieth century work on brain surgery not gone ahead – as it for sure wouldn’t today.)
What this comes down to is that scientists are just people after all: some pretty nice, some about alright, and some pretty rotten.
On a brighter note, having multiple facets to your sparkling intellect can also be a good thing.
Astronomer William Herschel’s (1738-1822) tale of confliction is a relatively happy one that I think made his life more fulfilling.
Herschel discovered Uranus and built fabulous ground-breaking telescopes. But he was also a professional organist and competent composer, whose first love – and bread and butter for much of his life – was music.
And it stayed with him; Herschel’s cheery ‘Echo Catch’ was performed at the pleasure gardens in Bath only a year before he discovered the mysterious seventh planet. For other good stuff Herschel got up to, see this earlier post.
I’m sure there are loads more examples of scientists whose dark side has come to light through some sordid revelation. But these are the ones who sprang to mind; maybe I’ll add more later. Feel free to volunteer candidates – especially if they’re still living.
Right! Two in morning. Now where did I put my cape and sword-stick.
References & further reading
1. The Knife Man, Wendy Moore, Bantam Press 2005
2. Newton and the Counterfeiter, Thomas Levenson, Faber & Faber, 2009
3. The Other Side of Albert Einstein, Physics World, 2005
4. Square Rounds, Tony Harrison, Faber & Faber, 2003
5. The Georgian Star. Michael Lemonick, Atlas, 2008