Sep 26 2023
My next review is of First Astronomers: How Indigenous Elders read the stars by Duane Hamacher. It is fair to say that Western astronomers, and other Western scientists have not treated Indigenous populations, and their knowledge, with a great deal of respect. Even now astronomers are in dispute with Indigenous populations in Hawaii over the siting of telescopes. In this book Hamacher tries to redress this imbalance and in my view does a good job of treating his interviewees, and their knowledge, with respect.
Western astronomers are not alien to interacting with people outside their professional group as part of their research most notably using historical data, like Chinese records of supernova but also amateur observers play an important in modern astronomy – particularly in the observation of comets and the like and other transient phenomena accessible using modest equipment.
The book starts with a prologue describing the background to the book and introducing a number of the Indigenous people who contributed, in the longer frontspiece they are listed as co-authors. They are largely from Australia but there are references to New Zealand, North American Native Americans, Artic peoples, South American and Africa groups.
Hamacher is an astronomer by profession and this has a bearing on this interviews with Indigenous Elders. In the past anthropologists have talked to Elders about their star knowledge and a lack of astronomical knowledge has led to mis-interpretation. I was intrigued to learn that in Western mythology the star name “Antares” is derived from the greek “anti Mars” – since Mars and Antares, in the same part of the sky and with a reddish hue are often confused!
The book is then divided thematically into chapters relating to different sorts of stars (including the moon). These are The Nearest Star (the sun), The Moon, Wandering Stars (planets), Twinkling Stars, Seasonal Stars, Variable Stars, Cataclysmic Stars (supernova and the like), Navigational Stars and Falling Stars (meteors and craters).
The big difference a Western reader will see is that Indigenous knowledge is transmitted via oral traditions, incorporating song and dance. Oral traditions are about creating a story around some star locations that provide useful information like where and when to hunt a particular animal or plant a particular crop, or where you are and how to get to where you want to be . The story linked to the stars allows it to be transmitted to the next generation without error. They are mnemonics rather than an attempt to describe a factual truth. This is obvious in Indigenous oral traditions which are still alive but I suspect it would have been the case for the oral traditions of Western Europe which give us our modern constellations.
Oral traditions can be very powerful, there is a group of craters in Australia (the Henbury Craters) which were created by a meteor impact around 4200 years ago – Aboriginal oral traditions have held this knowledge of their creation across that period of time.
Indigenous constellations can overlap and change through the seasons, they also incorporate dark space – particularly in the Milky Way. These constellations are locally determined to fit with local conditions, and land features used as landmarks.
As well as maritime navigation where the stars are used directly for finding direction, the stars are also used as a navigational aid for terrestrial travel – the routes are learnt in the dark of the winter using the stars as a map of the ground (picking stars which approximate the locations on the ground). These “songlines” are reflected in some modern day highways in Australia.
What comes through from the book is that Indigenous astronomers were very astute observers of the sky, noting phenomena including the varying twinkle of stars (including colour and intensity variations), the 8 year period of Venus returning to the same location in the sky, variable stars, sunspots and their 11 year cycle, the sounds associated with aurora and so forth. Some of these phenomena were not widely recognised by astronomers in the West until into the 19th century. In addition they had a clear understanding of many phenomena: that the moon reflected the light of the sun, that the earth was a sphere, that craters were the result of rocks falling from the sky.
Unsurprisingly, I was constantly comparing with Western astronomy. The great divergence was sometime around the end of the 16th century when Western astronomers started making detailed written records of the locations of stars and planets and using mathematics to understand them, and then moved on to the use of telescopes. I can’t help feeling the Indigenous people were held back by a lack of writing.
What comes through at the end of the book is that in the Indigenous communities have a long history of passionate and astute astronomers, dedicated to their role, and increasingly they are taking part and excelling in Western astronomy and astrophysics.
Sep 08 2023
My next review is of Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines and the Health of Nations by Simon Schama.
The book is divided into three parts, covering smallpox, cholera and bubonic plague – in its late 19th century manifestation – and how vaccines were developed and deployed for these diseases. Waldemar Haffkine features heavily in the chapters on cholera and bubonic plague, for which he invented and delivered vaccines, and in some senses this is his biography albeit somewhat unfocussed with much additional material.
The first part covers the introduction of inoculation for smallpox to Western Europe in the early 18th century. This a process whereby a small quantity of the material from a smallpox pustule is introduced to small cuts in the skin of a patient who then falls mildly ill with the disease but is protected from further more serious infection. Voltaire appears in this section as a hook for some of the discussion – he was one of the early promoters of inoculation in France.
Terms are a bit fluid in this area but inoculation refers to the use of the live, unaltered bacteria/virus whilst vaccination refers to the use of a vaccine which is based on a weakened or even partial version of the disease causing micro-organism.
Smallpox was a serious disease in the 18th century, having apparently mutated to a more virulent, deadly form in the mid-17th century. This newer variant killed as many as 1 in 6 of those infected with many of those surviving showing significant scarring. It was indiscriminate, killing royalty as well as paupers. The inoculation process had been used by at least some communities in the Middle East, Africa and South America. The first chapter in this section is largely about the introduction of the idea of inoculation to polite Western European society. This met with some resistance – inoculation did not fit with the then current model of the smallpox disease (essentially the side effect of a bodily purging process), and it challenged the medical establishment coming as it did from a “foreign” country and, worse than that, was often practiced by women!
The second of the smallpox chapter covers the commercialisation of the inoculation process during the 18th century. This typically involved upselling preliminary treatments and post-inoculation care which was largely superfluous. It is interesting though that as part of this process the first clinical trials were conducted to test the efficacy of the process.
The second part of the book, on cholera, features Adrien Proust, father of Marcel Proust. Adrien Proust would become very involved in creating international the first public health organisations. Cholera had come to Europe around 1817 with pandemics killing many thousands recurring through the century. Proust senior had been a young doctor in the 1854 outbreak in Paris as a hospital doctor he would have seen 40% of patients die from this disease. At the time the cause of cholera was not known, it was assumed that it was a result of “filth” and unsanitary living conditions. This perhaps explains some of the Victorian efforts to install sewers and water systems, as well as the fact that living in crowded insanitary cities was simply unpleasant.
In the case of cholera, which is a bacterial infection discovered (quietly) by Filippo Pacini in 1854 and more famously by Robert Koch in 1883, sanitation and disinfection measures are a reasonable approach which has some benefits. There was commercial opposition to seeing cholera as an infection because that implied quarantines and the like which had a commercial impact. This attitude was to recur in the subsequent bubonic plague outbreaks in Indian and China which has more serious consequences since dirty water has no bearing on plague transmission. In fact we saw this argument regarding the COVID-19 restrictions.
It is in this part we first meet Waldemar Haffkine, born into a Jewish family in Odessa in 1860. He trained as a biologist working under Ilya Mechnikov, who would later win a Noble Prize for his work on immunity. Haffkine went on to the Pasteur Institute in Paris (Pasteur was still alive at this point), where he developed a vaccine for cholera. Haffkine had a an extensive file with the authorities in Odessa as a result of his activism in the defence of the Jewish community against repeated pogroms.
He tested his vaccine in India with minimal support from the colonial medical services. Reading between the lines it looks like his expenses claims were a key historical resource. To a degree he used the Indian population as one amenable for doing controlled trials of the vaccine due to their living conditions, and their status in the colonial system.
The part of the book on bubonic plague is a repeat of the chapters on cholera with Haffkine involved in the discovery of the plague bacillus, and the development and deployment of the vaccine, particularly in India. Here the story diverges a bit, the colonial response to plague was to apply sanitation measures up to and including burning down houses where infections had occurred. This, naturally, angered the local population and played some part in the rise of Indian nationalism.
Haffkine’s medical career was to effectively come to an end in the Indian plague vaccination programme. A vial of vaccine that had been produced in the facility he led was contaminated with tetanus leading to the death of nineteen vaccine recipients. The colonial Indian medical authorities were quick to place the blame on Haffkine although later investigations showed that the vial was most likely contaminated “in the field” (literally) and so was not at all Haffkine’s responsibility. He was eventually notationally exonerated with the support of Sir Ronald Ross (who won a Noble prize for his work on the transmission of malaria) but the damage was done and after some work on a typhoid vaccine he gave up his medical work aged 54.
Haffkine, in his later years, returned to his Jewish roots – arguing the case for Orthodox Judaism, and supporting a movement to make Crimea an area for training Jews in agriculture with a view to moving to Palestine. After the Russian revolution Jews no longer faced pogroms on the basis of their religion, they experienced persecution because the Soviet Union did not want anyone, regardless of religion practicing their religion.
I have mixed feelings about this book, it feels like it is trying to be several things at once – a history of vaccination for smallpox, cholera and bubonic plague but also a biography of Waldemar Haffkine with substantial chunks of not entirely relevant material also added. The long chapters don’t suit my reading style very well. At one point Schama manages a half-page sentence which I don’t think I’ve seen before in English! The book is clearly well-researched and written with some style but it doesn’t feel like a book to be read by the pool.
Aug 11 2023
I recently reviewed Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic’s Storytelling with data, as a result the storytelling team sent me a copy of Storytelling with you to review. Storytelling with you is the next step in the journey which started with Storytelling with data, widening the scope to talk more fully about the whole process of presenting from inception to delivery and not being concerned specifically with presenting data.
I’m a data scientist, previously an academic and then industrial research scientist. Presenting has been a constant throughout my career, both as an audience member and as a presenter. Yet it is something in which I have had relatively little training and given the quality of the presentations I have witnessed – I am not alone!
Those with a scientific background will be used to a standard way of presenting results that effectively replicates a scientific paper (introduction, methodology, results, discussion, conclusions). Knaflic’s earlier book proposed a break from this format: using ideas from storytelling to shape presentations. She cites Resonate by Nancy Duarte, as a reference for this approach. Storytelling with you is similar in content to Resonate but feels like a shorter, more focussed book.
The book is divided into three parts: plan, create and deliver. Each part comprises four chapters. Each chapter ends with an instalment of the “TRIX Case study”. TRIX is a trail mix product which requires revision and the presentation is about options for this revision. I really liked this, it enables Knaflic to provide examples of the material in each chapter without having to restate the context for each new outing. I have learnt that macadamia nuts are really important to the TRIX mix!
Planning starts with the audience, not the content. Who are they? What do they want? I find Linkedin is great for getting a quick view of audience members. In terms of content the plan starts with the Big Idea – the sentence that captures what the presentation is about. This is expanded into a full story using a storyboard based on Post-its.
Knaflic is keen on Post-Its for planning and organising material. My tendency when creating a presentation is to open up a PowerPoint file but this forces me into choices on format and so forth that I don’t need to make at the beginning. There is also a challenge in being unwilling to delete slides so carefully and laboriously created!
The section on the theory of storytelling is quite brief. One takeaway for me was to think of the children’s books you know as templates for storytelling. Over the last 10 years or so I have read a lot to my son so I am very familiar with a range of children’s books. I like Dr Seuss, and Julia Donaldson’s books – The Gruffalo, for example – not only do they provide a template for stories, they are designed to be read aloud and provide some ideas for delivery. For fun, you can even think about your presentation in the style of Dr Seuss!
The create section is very practical, including a walkthrough of how to use PowerPoint-like Slide Master – I found this welcome since whilst I am aware of the master slides my use of them is rather primitive. It also talks about font selection, picking a font which has a distinct bold form, and colour selection.
The appendix containing the completed slides for the TRIX case study is quite telling when I compare them to my own: the case study slides contain far less text and effectively no bullet points when compared to mine. The story of the presentation is read from the titles which summarise the slide they sit on rather than indicating the function of the slide.
In terms of content I found the section on images most interesting, corporate templates tend to have a bunch of images included, and I always feel the need to add an image to each slide – which is wrong.
There is a substantial section on delivery. I found the part on introducing yourself quite striking, it talks about picking out the characteristics which you wish to present and relating anecdotes that support them. I found this a bit calculated but realise I probably do this intuitively – I am notorious for my anecdotes!
I was bemused by the vision of Knaflic striking power poses in conference centre restrooms in preparation for presenting! She provides a lot of detail on how she prepares to deliver a presentation. I learnt long ago that practicing the opening is very important, I find it helps me to relax. Knaflic points out that practicing your ending is equally important – it sends your audience off into action.
In common with Resonate and Storytelling with data the assumption is that you are preparing for a high stakes meeting and you are going to commit a lot of time to this process. Typically I find I make lots of low stakes presentations so there is a degree to which I would adapt the lessons in this book to that scenario. In fact the storytelling team have recognised this, and produced a blog post on a reduced process.
If you’re looking for a readable guide to planning, creating and delivering presentations then this is the book for you!
Aug 07 2023
In my history thread of reading, Femina by Janina Ramirez is up next. The subtitle, A New History of the Middles Ages, Through the Women Written Out of It, is as good a summary as one would like. Through nine chapters it relates the stories of women from the 7th century through to the 15th century. The earliest chapter relies entirely on archaeological evidence with later chapters mainly documentary but with some reference to historical objects.
The introductory chapter highlights that medieval women, such as Joan of Arc and Julian of Norwich influenced the suffragettes, so their existence was not unknown. It is fair to say that medieval women have not been subject of a huge amount of academic interest.
Subsequent chapters typically focus on one woman but include some material on other similar or related women. The chapters progress chronologically.
A recurring theme is the spread of the Catholic Church through the medieval period, and the role of women in that spread. First, bearing jewelry with secret Christian symbols but later as abbesses – in this period it seemed common for a monastery, for monks, and a convent, for nuns, to be paired. The position of abbess was quite senior, and providing an opportunity for study. The Reformation in the first half of the 16th century took away this route to power for women.
As is my custom I will provide a short summary of the chapters:
Movers and Shakers – the “Loftus princess burial” in North East England in the 7th century. It represents a transitional burial incorporating pre-Christian grave goods – in a Christian cemetery where grave goods are typically not found. It also considers the role of women like Queen Bertha of Kent and Hilda of Whitby in the development of the early Christian church in England.
Decision makers – the women of the British kingdoms prior to the “Viking” invasion in the second half of the 9th century. Cynethryth, Queen of the Mercians, features heavily – she ruled with her husband, Offa, until he died, and then in her own right. Cynethryth is unique as a women in England found on coinage of this period.
Warriors and Leaders – the Birka Warrior, a burial in a settlement near Stockholm – occupied for a period of 200 years. They were buried with weapons but were recently identified as a woman rather than a man. Obviously this caused some controversy but other sources suggest that there were at least some military women in this period and other burials on the site suggested that women were also tradespeople.
Artists and patrons – the Bayeux Tapestry, and the team of women believed to have made it – it turns out that it isn’t King Harold getting the arrow in the eye – once again my childhood history knowledge is false!
Polymaths and scientists – this chapter focusses on Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). She was an abbess and wrote widely on a range of topics including science and medicine as well as composing music. Her correspondence network included several popes.
Spies and Outlaws – the Cathars in southern France – who were subject to the Albigensian Crusade for heresy in the early 13th century. This was in a time when the Inquisition was only part-formed and local arrangements were more important than the central view. Women appear in the records of the Inquisition, and could be preachers in the Cathar religion.
Kings and diplomats – Jadwiga, the only female king of Poland, a member of the Europe-wide royal families. She introduced the Catholic Church to Poland, founded a University in Krakow, the first in Poland. She died following childbirth at the age of 26. In common with the Decision Makers chapter it shows how marriage was used as a tool of diplomacy in medieval Europe but with women playing some role in organising these partnerships – not simply pawns moved around a board by men.
Entrepreneurs and influencers – the chance survival of The Book of Margery Kempe – the first autobiography in English, written around 1440. Margery Kempe was from a relatively important family in Kings Lynn. She seems like quite a character, reporting a wide range of business enterprises, and religious visions as well as a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
The final chapter touches on diversity, looking at the ethnicity of Londoners around the time of the Black Death – it shows (on the basis of 41 skeletons) that London in 1350 was about as diverse as modern London. There is also a single court account, elided in the official translation, relating to someone who might now be considered transgender.
Unrelated to gender, Femina highlights how cosmopolitan and connected medieval England was to Europe, and even Asia.
One thing that struck me from this book is that history is viewed through a glass darkly. Across the span of the 600 or so years from the latest of the women described in this book to the present day a great deal can happen. The first is that women are simply not written about, although this book shifts the balance a bit, it is clear were not generally considered the equals of men in the Middle Ages but they were more important than we perhaps currently believe.
More insidiously history is continually re-written by (usually) men with their own axe to grind, or simply a story to tell. An example of this is the “invention” of the Vikings in the 19th century, including their horned helmets which were popularised by a staging of The Ring of the Nibelung in 1876. The suppression of women’s stories started not long after the end of this book, in the 16th century or so.
This is without considering the amount of material simply lost over the span of 600 years.
I found Femina really readable, the chapters all start with some scene setting written in a more fictional style, the chapters provide self-contained stories – it is easy to see this being made into a TV series. I think the biggest takeaways for me were how important at least some women were in the Middle Ages, and how distorted our view of the past is by the historians (and wider society) of the intervening period.
Feb 07 2023
A second hand book to review this time, Richard Trevithick – Giant of Steam by Anthony Burton. I bought it in Malvern. Richard Trevithick is best know as the inventor of the steam railway locomotive – the first person to put a steam engine on a carriage with wheels and put that carriage on metal rails. This followed his demonstration of a steam road carriage in 1801, with the railway locomotives in the following couple of years.
Richard Trevithick was born near Camborne in Cornwall to Ann Teague (a miners daughter) and Richard Trevithick Senior, a mine “captain”, in 1771. He died in 1833. He had a wife, Jane who would be well-described as “long-suffering” – Trevithick had little interest in providing a steady income for his family or at least if he had the desire he was inept at executing it and was briefly bankrupt in 1815. Furthermore he left for South America for a period of 11 years from 1816 to 1827, with little communication back home with his wife and friends in England during that period. Despite this his six children, and his wife, seemed to have held him in at least some regard and his son Francis, at the very least in high regard. Jane Trevithick lived until 1868.
The Cornish mining milieu is a key feature of his upbringing and subsequent career. The mine “captains” were very hands-on managers who led mining operations at the Cornish mines. They often had significant financial interest in mines. Cornwall in the 18th century was seen as a bit of an English Wild West with a degree of opposition to ideas developed outside the area. Steam engines had been born in the South West to drain mines, with the first made by Thomas Savery in 1698, followed by Thomas Newcomen’s more practicable engine invented in 1712. Both Savery and Newcomen were from the neighbouring county of Devon.
The James Watt / Matthew Boulton steam engine was to dominate the market for steam engines in the United Kingdom from 1775 until the end of the 18th century. It was a more efficient engine than those that went before, commercially it was protected aggressively by Watt and Boulton using patents which supressed other developments in the area until they expired.
Trevithick had a fairly minimal education but seemed to be a very adept calculator, he was a large, strong man with something of a temper. This caused him problems later in life with some of his inventions which essentially failed because he fell out massively with his backers/potential customers and stopped work on them. He had a life-long friendship with Davies Gilbert who was more scientifically inclined. Trevithick quickly moved to working in the local mines first as a helper to his father but then in his own right. It’s interesting that steam engines would have been a regular part of the Cornish mining industry for seventy or so years before Trevithick entered the scene. Developments were clearly relatively slow until the arrival of the Watt/Boulton engine. The key scientific development in the area, the discovery of latent heat – the energy required to bring water from the liquid to gaseous state – was only published in 1763 by Joseph Black.
On railway locomotives it turned out Trevithick was a little before his time, George Stephenson was to successfully kick off the railway revolution with the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1825 and the Liverpool and Manchester line in 1829 – twenty or so years after Trevithick’s demonstration. Trevithick’s effort suffered from two issues, one systematic issue was Trevithick’s approach which was to demonstrate many ideas but never to follow them through to successful, commercial exploitation. The second, technical, issue was that iron rails at the time were not tough enough to handle the weight of a steam engine and soon fractured. Interestingly Robert Stephenson, George’s son and a significant railway engineer in his own right, met Trevithick in Columbia in 1826.
Trevithick’s real innovation was in developing a high pressure steam engine, operating at pressures ultimately in excess of 150 psi compared the Watt-Boulton engine operating at less than 10 psi. This gave Trevithick a compact and flexible power source that could be used for a variety of purposes and, according to his vision, could actually physically propel itself to new work. Essentially he had invented the traction engine which wasn’t to be successfully patented and exploited until the 1860s.
Trevithick moved to London with his family in 1803, he had demonstrated his railway locomotive and a road stream carriage there initially but he moved on to work on dredging for the new docks, and also a tunnel under the Thames. He was frustrated that the Admiralty were unwilling to take on any of his ideas. Ultimately nothing came of his London stay, other than he was made briefly bankrupt. That said, he actually did a pretty good job on a tunnel under the Thames, a task only successfully completed by the Brunels following nearly 20 years of work from 1824.
Soon after returning to Cornwall from London he left again, this time without his family, to Peru where he had been taken on to supply and install steam engines for the mint in Lima, and a mine in Cerro de Pasco. His plans in Peru were foiled by revolution. He then moved on to Costa Rica, where he started a pearl-fishing business using a diving bell he had designed a few years earlier. He also attempted to start a gold mine but was unable to raise sufficient finance for this.
He died in 1833, 6 years after having returned from South America.
I’ve missed out any mention of Trevithick’s threshing machine, his ideas for steam-powered boats, a diving bell and using iron containers to carry liquids on boats!
I found this book fascinating, I’ve previously read books on Thomas Telford, George and Robert Stephenson, Matthew Boulton, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and William Armstrong who collectively span the Industrial Revolution in England – Trevithick fits into the earlier part of this story.
It has led me to wondering a little about being “before their time”, this was very apparent in the Trevithick story with so many of his ideas only coming to fruition decades after he died. Was he exceptional or is this not so uncommon – we simply don’t hear about those whose ideas required other developments for them to work? The names that have been prominent from the Industrial Revolution are those that not only invented but also were commercially successful, at least some of the time – leaving lasting monuments to their ideas.