Archive for the 'History of science' category

"On the decline of mathematical studies, and the sciences dependent upon them"

Jun 21 2010 Published by under ... the Hell?, History of science

I was browsing the internet a few weeks ago, and came across an opinion piece lamenting the poor state of mathematical education and the detrimental effect it has had on science.  The provocative piece starts as follows:

It is a subject of wonder and regret to many, that this island, after having astonished Europe by the most glorious display of talents in mathematics and the sciences dependent upon them, should suddenly suffer its ardour to cool, and almost entirely to neglect those studies in which it infinitely excelled all other nations.  After having made the most wonderful and unhoped-for discoveries, and pointed out the road to more; suddenly to desist, and leave these to be cultivated, and the road to more to be explored, by other nations, is very remarkable.  It seems as strange as the conduct of a conqueror would be, was he to conquer all the countries around him, and then tamely to suffer his own and the subjugated ones to be possessed, governed, and cultivated, by those whom he had conquered.

It is a very great disgrace for a nation like this, which can proudly boast of a superiority over all others in arts, arms and commerce, to suffer the sublimest sciences, which once were its greatest pride and glory, to be neglected.  Surely a much more solid fame accrues to a people from their superiority in talents than in arms.  Athens is as celebrated for its learning as its commerce or its victories.  It cannot be owing to any want of importance in the sciences themselves that they are neglected; the discoveries made in them are of the most astonishing nature, and such as seemed absolutely beyond the reach of human intellect.  By the marvellous assistance of the mathematics from the simple law of gravity are deduced the orbits of the planets and satellites, their distances, the times of their revolutions, their densities, quantities of matter, and many other remarkable properties too well known to be enumerated.  Were it not for them, mechanics, optics, hydrostatics, geography, and other branches of natural philosophy, would hardly have been known as science.  It is possible that discoveries more wonderful and of greater utility than those already made by the help of mathematics, may some time or other be effected, should some great genius once point out the way.  It is the opinion of many philosophers, that the various forms and diversified properties of bodies are owing to the various laws of attraction and repulsion which their constituent particles exercise upon each other.  Should these laws ever be discovered, we shall become as well acquainted with the structure, affinities, and mutual operations of boides, as we are with the revolutions and actions of the planets upon each other.

As you probably have noted already from the style of writing, this is not a particularly recent article.  In fact, this call-to-arms in favor of mathematics education was written in 1804!

Continue Reading »

5 responses so far

Shocking: Michael Faraday does biology! (1839)

May 15 2010 Published by under History of science, Physics

(This is my entry to the first "special edition" of The Giant's Shoulders, dubbed "The Leviathan's Shoulders", with an emphasis on oceans and ocean life.  The post is actually about a river creature, but, hey, it's still aquatic!)

I've spent a lot of time talking about Michael Faraday (1791-1867) and his scientific accomplishments on this blog.  His thorough investigations into the nature of electricity and magnetism paved the way for all of modern electromagnetics as well as optics, and he is rightly viewed as one of the greatest experimentalists of all time.  Among his monumental works are the observation that changing magnetic fields induce electric fields (electromagnetic induction) and the observation that light polarization can be affected by an applied magnetic field (Faraday rotation).

Though it is natural to think of Faraday as a researcher of electricity alone, in his era the study of electricity connected to almost every aspect of the natural sciences.  In the late 1700s Luigi Galvani had shown that an amputated frog's leg could be made to move by electrical stimulation, demonstrating a connection between biological function and electricity.   By 1800 it was known that chemical reactions can be induced by electricity, in a process known as electrolysis; Faraday himself published fundamental results on electrolysis in 1834.  Electricity could be connected to thermodynamics through the observation that an electrical current heats the wire it passes through (Joule heating); this process was rather mysterious because neither the origins of heat (atomic motion) nor electricity (electrons) were established in Faraday's time.

Electricity could be generated through atmospheric, chemical, and mechanical means, and it was by no means obvious that these different sources were manifestations of the same fundamental electrical phenomenon.  (In fact, Faraday himself did a significant amount of research to demonstrate that all forms of electricity are in fact the same. )

A researcher of electricity could therefore be expected to make forays into quite diverse areas of study.  In 1839, Faraday published the scientific results of one of his forays, "Notice of the character and direction of the electric force of the Gymnotus," in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (pp. 1-12).

What is the "Gymnotus"?  The taxonomy of the species seems to have been changed over the years, but at this time seems to be referring to what used to be known as Gymnotus electricus, or the electric eel (image source):

Continue Reading »

10 responses so far

Mythbustin': 1808 edition (the incombustible man)

I swear that I'm not going through journals looking for old versions of the Mythbusters' experiments!  After blogging about old scientific papers on myths such as "finger in the barrel" and "Archimedes death ray", I figured I'd pretty much tapped out historical mythbustin' papers.  Scientists of every era, however, have an eye for the weird, so I suppose it was inevitable that I found another paper with a connection to modern mythbusting!

The paper in question is "Memoir on the Incombustible Man; or the pretended phænomenon of incombustibility," from volume 32 of the Philosophical Magazine from 1808, by Louis Sementini, M.D., chief Professor of Chemistry in the Royal University of Naples.

What this paper describes is an in depth series of experiments, performed by Dr. Sementini upon himself, on the science of fire eating!*

Continue Reading »

19 responses so far

Michelson and the President (1869)

Apr 12 2010 Published by under History of science, Optics

I'm currently working my way through the book The Master of Light: a Biography of Albert A. Michelson (1973), written by one of his daughters, Dorothy Michelson Livingston.  I typically find the beginnings of biographies to be rather slow-moving, with some sort of statement like, "There was little to indicate in his/her childhood what a great scientist he/she would become," but this is definitely not the case for Michelson -- his life story is interesting starting pretty much at birth!

I thought I'd share another anecdote from the book that I found fascinating: Michelson's meeting, at a young age before he was famous, with the President of the United States Ulysses S. Grant!

Continue Reading »

6 responses so far

Michelson and Margarite

Apr 02 2010 Published by under History of science, Women in science

My recent posts on Ada Lovelace Day (here and here) not only drove home the point that there were even more historically important women scientists and mathematicians than I had optimistically imagined, but that the smartest male scientists of their eras appreciated their contributions and actively encouraged them.

I don't want to obsess over the approbation of the male scientists -- undeniably, the women's contributions stand out on their own.  Now that I've noticed it, though, I'm spotting other remarkable and little-remembered instances, and can't resist sharing.  These stories give me a little more faith in humanity, or at least the scientific community.

The story I want to tell in this post I came across in a biography of Albert A. Michelson (1852-1931) written by his daughter Dorothy Michelson Livingston: The Master of Light (Charles Scribner's Sons, NY, 1973).

Continue Reading »

No responses yet

Some more women in science, and their appreciators

Mar 28 2010 Published by under History of science, Women in science

I thought, before this past week, that I appreciated quite well the important but often unacknowledged role that women have played in the history of science and mathematics.  It turns out that I've hardly scratched the surface of their contributions, which go back even further than I imagined.  Perhaps even more fascinating is the fact that a number of truly great male researchers realized the brilliance of these women, even if the bulk of the academic community did not.  As a supplement to my Ada Lovelace day post, I thought I'd present a little more musing on the role of women in science from the point of view of some of these researchers.

Continue Reading »

22 responses so far

Women published in the Royal Society, 1890-1930

I've been struggling to think of a woman scientist to profile for Ada Lovelace Day!  Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) was a brilliant woman mathematician and arguably the first computer programmer, designing a program for Charles Babbage's (never constructed) Analytical Engine.  Ada Lovelace Day was started in 2009 to commemorate the accomplishments of women in science, and bloggers pledge to post on a science or tech heroine.

The trouble is that I don't know enough about any particular female scientist to comfortably blog about her!  I'm very eager to blog about Sofia Kovalevskaya, an amazing Russian mathematician, but don't know enough to add value beyond her Wikipedia article!  (That will be rectified next year, as I've ordered three books on Sofia: a biography, her memoirs, and her novel!)

I do read a lot of journals, however, and I've noticed that a lot of women make an appearance as authors starting in the late 1800s.  I've been downloading the papers of these authors from the Royal Society, and I thought it would be nice to briefly describe the women and the work of the era from roughly 1890 to 1930.  The list puts the lie to the misogynistic claim that women have no interest in science or have made no significant contributions -- especially since these papers appear before women even had equal voting rights to men in the U.K.! (Women's suffrage was fully granted in 1928.)

Continue Reading »

6 responses so far

Pwned by a historian of science!

Mar 22 2010 Published by under History of science

I knew this moment would come eventually!  As an amateur scholar of the history of science, I've dreaded the day that I get my facts screwed up enough to bring commentary from an actual historian.  Well, that day has come -- after reading my talk on "Forgotten milestones in the history of science", ThonyC of The Renaissance Mathematicus sent me a nice email pointing out how I'd bungled my discussion of the significance of Ibn al-Haytham's work.

I knew I was on shaky ground while I was working on that section of the talk, which was the hardest to prepare.  I was working from a limited amount of sources against a deadline to complete the talk, but I really wanted to include al-Haytham as perhaps the most significant optics researcher of his era.  Most of my colleagues in optics are unaware of the history of optics before Newton, and this was a great opportunity to bring a little attention to that era and the interesting philosophical questions pondered.

There's nothing that bugs me more than incorrect information, and spreading said information, so I thought I'd try and correct at least some of my mistakes with the help of Thony's comments via email!

Continue Reading »

6 responses so far

My talk on "Forgotten milestones in the history of optics"

Mar 18 2010 Published by under History of science, Optics

I just got finished giving a talk to the graduate students of my department on "Forgotten milestones in the history of optics".  The talk seemed to be very well-received, and I've already had faculty suggesting that I should give it again in the engineering department.

The talk was scheduled at 1 hour, and I prepared 45 slides.  My only miscalculation was that I didn't take into account how long-winded I get when I'm talking about a subject I'm really passionate about -- I ended up speaking for 1h10m!

Here is the presentation:  2010_historyofoptics

Three of the four topics are essentially adapted from history of science posts I've put on this blog before, though the first one -- on Ibn al-Haytham -- is new.

If any departments are interested, I could be coaxed into coming to give a presentation... 🙂

12 responses so far

Perpetual motion -- nonsense for over 100 years

Mar 10 2010 Published by under ... the Hell?, History of science

Some two years ago, I wrote a post about a device called the "whipmag", a thinly-disguised perpetual motion machine based on magnets that would supposedly accelerate without an external source of energy once set in motion.  I was understandably critical of the device, and free energy has yet to reach the masses, but that doesn't stop people from being true believers.  Last week, I received the following comment on the post (written two years ago, mind you):

Neither the author of this article nor the guy in the second video actually gives any data or analysis applicable to the device in the first video. The author’s diagram does not reflect the structure of the device in the video. Also the author mentions several times “conservation of energy” and “thermodynamics” laws, but does not apply those concepts to explain how the device could not work. Thus no analysis has taken place in this article, only emotional oversimplification ( just like the second video guy ) and a trail of distracting mini history lessons.

The complaint seems to be that I don't actually spend my time proving that the device can't work.  My answer to this is that I don't have to!  At this point, such devices have been debunked so often and the laws of physics so well understood that the onus is on any would-be perpetual motion discoverer to demonstrate that their device does work, and ideally explain why.

It is especially amusing to hear criticism of "mini history lessons".  Science is a process which builds upon all knowledge that has come before; what we have discovered previously -- scientific history -- is crucial.  It would be impossible for science to progress if we spent all of our time, in the absence of new evidence, testing schemes that we know have already failed.

With that in mind, it is worth pointing out that perpetual motion has been considered impossible -- and treated with scorn -- for a long, long time.  When I dug up the first volume of The Harmsworth Magazine, dated 1899, to seek out a story by Winston Churchill, I also found a popular article on perpetual motion. It is not kind to the concept, or the people who pursue it.

Continue Reading »

5 responses so far

« Newer posts Older posts »