Category: Book Reviews

Reviews of books featuring a summary of the book and links to related material

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeing Further: A Blaggers Guide (Part 1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book review: The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes

I thought I would give book reviewing a go, this last week we have been holidaying which means I managed a solid chunk of reading, seated on the balcony of our hotel (see picture*). An ulterior motive is that, casting an eye across my bookshelves, there are interesting books which I have read of whose contents I have no memory. So in this post I hope to remind a future me of what I have read.

The subject of my review is “The Age of Wonder” by Richard Holmes. This is a book on a subset of scientists active in England around 1800. As I have mentioned before I am not up to the reading of original sources required of historians, but it doesn’t mean I’m not interested.

A central figure in this book is Sir Joseph Banks, who warrants a chapter of his own covering his round the world trip with Captain Cook, focussing mainly on his time in Tahiti. He travelled at his own, considerable, expense as the voyage’s lead naturalist. The attrition for the whole journey was terrible, with half the crew and four of the eight man nature team dying. The voyage was led by the Admiralty with a contribution of £4000 from the Royal Society to observe the transit of Venus from Tahiti. After this journey Banks appears to have acted far more as an administrator and courtier than a personal adventurer, perhaps understandably. He also went on to become the President of the Royal Society and was heavily involved in developing the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew.

William Herschel, and his sister Caroline, lead in two chapters. In the first instance we find Herschel discovering Uranus, using the rather fine telescopes he had made for himself. He is “discovered” by a fellow of the Royal Society viewing the stars in the street outside his house in Bath. The book reveals a nicer side to Nevil Maskelyne, the Astronomer Royal who has received a poor press through his treatment of John Harrison. Caroline Herschel, who discovered a number of comets in her own right was recognised for it, in part, through his support.

In a second chapter William Herschel’s, with Caroline, commission a 40 foot telescope, using a “grant” from King George III totalling £4,000. Converting this into a modern equivalent is a complex process since there really isn’t a single answer. According to the National Archive currency converter this is equivalent to about £130,000 in modern money. The Astronomer Royal was then earning £300 per annum, if we scale a modern professors salary (£60k) in a similar fashion then we get a figure of £780k. Other calculations give us figures in the low millions, which is actually not that large: many university labs around the country will contain single items valued in excess of £1million and most will probably host £1million worth of equipment in total. Ultimately the 40ft telescope did not make a huge scientific impact, being rather difficult to use, however Herschel was instrumental in discovering “Deep space”, that’s to say the appreciation of the vastness of the universe.

There is an interlude on balloonists which stands a little free from the rest of the book, both hot-air balloons and hydrogen balloons were invented at roughly the same time. One enterprising soul, Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier, bolted the two devices together but came to a sticky end as the fire required to heat the hot air balloon was somewhat incompatible with the flammable hydrogen balloon. The balloonists were broadly showmen and adventurers but their activities had an air of futility to them. Although the leap into the air was significant, ultimately the lack of control in passive balloons limited their applications.

Humphrey Davy makes three appearances, in the first we see some of his early scientific life in Bristol working on various gases at Thomas Beddoes Pneumatic Institute in Bristol. Here, amongst other things, he seems to have entrenched his scientific methodology and experimented on self and others with nitrous oxide (laughing gas). In a later chapter he appears to design his miner’s safety lamp – a lamp which would burn safely in mines where methane is present. He comes over in this chapter as a rather arrogant character, a little unscrupulous in claiming the credit for the discovery of iodine and rather tardy in his acknowledgement of the support he received from Michael Faraday in his work.

There is a chapter on Mungo Park who, apart from his name, just didn’t capture my imagination. He made a start on the exploration of inner West Africa sponsored by Banks via the Africa Association. To my mind he was ill on arrival then died in transit, which didn’t seem to make much of a story.

A chapter entitled “Dr Frankenstein and the Soul” starts with a discussion of Fanny Burney’s mastectomy conducted without anaesthetic, which she described in quite terrible detail in a letter to her sister. This leads into Vitalism and the medical experiments of the day, some of them quite horrific, which fed into Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”. There is some discussion of the interaction between various poets of the time, Byron, Shelley, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats and the scientists. In a way it seems that it was a time before the two cultures that C.P Snow described.

The final chapter covers young turks rising up against the fuddy-duddys at the Royal Society and forming their own organisation – The British Association for the Advancement of Science.

All in all a very fine read, it seems to fit with Lisa Jardine’s book “Ingenious Pursuits” which covers an earlier period in the history of English science, from around the middle of the 17th century to the early years of the 18th, and Jenny Uglow’s “The Lunar Men” which covers the period 1730-1810 which is a little before the period covered in “The Age of Wonder” and is interested in particular in the members of the Lunar Society.

I’m now looking for a biography of Sir Joseph Banks, a more complete history of the Royal Society and I feel like I should be exploring some of the other European scientific societies of the period such as the French Académie des sciences.

*The picture is cheating a little, the featured volume is “The Illustrated Natural History of Selborne” by Gilbert White, who crosses paths with Sir Joseph Banks. This was part of The Inelegant Gardener’s reading, which I borrowed.