Tag Archives: history of science

The Invention of Clouds

Invention of CloudsInvention of Clouds by Richard Hamblyn

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I finished this book on an overcast evening. By the time I was done, the setting sun had broken through the clouds to reveal a strikingly three-dimensional panorama of torn vapor and gold. It was a cloudscape, the kind I try to capture in my stories “Unborn God” and “The Wizard’s House”—part of a series I’m calling Cartography of Clouds that will be published shortly in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. It was also a fitting backdrop to the conclusion of this book on the history of attempts to name and categorize these most fleeting of natural phenomena.

The nineteenth century was a heyday of classification schemes in natural philosophy. If one could accurately name and organize objects, one could ensure that observations of them were uniform around the world. In astronomy this involved attempts to measure star positions as accurately as possible, but it also led to schemes for measuring double star positions and stellar brightness and developing a more rational way to divide up the heavens into constellations. (I discuss a lot of this in my dissertation, which I will be defending very shortly.)

In biology, a similar categorizing impetus gave rise to the Linnaean system of classifying organisms. Hamblyn’s The Invention of Clouds tells the story of doing the same thing for the changing skies. If weather observations were to develop into a uniform science of meteorology, there needed to be some way to accurately designate and compare cloud forms. But the clouds are by their very nature always changing and each one seems different. What sort of natural scheme of division could be devised for these objects?

The book focuses one individual, the Quaker merchant and natural philosopher Luke Howard, and how Howard devised, promoted, and propagated the cloud divisions (cumulus, stratus, cirrus, etc.) that have since passed into common and official usage. On one level, Hamblyn’s work is a fairly simple (though at times romanticized) tale: Howard developed his classification, presented it in a lecture, published it in a philosophical magazine, and ultimately found success. It is a straightforward story but one that illustrates what the scientific endeavor looked like in the early nineteenth century.

This is a popularization of the history of science. There’s no discussion of previous work done on Luke Howard (a figure I admit I had never heard of before this book) or discussion of the archives or source materials the author utilized. As a popularization though, it does a good job of using Howard’s life and work to illustrate how science worked during this period. The reader gets a sense of the popular interest in amateur science—in particular meteorology—and the world of scientific periodicals through which Howard rose to fame. More compellingly for me though was what it showed about the impetus for classification and categorizing during this period, the drive to obtain a uniformity of observations that could bring objectivity to nature.

Besides Howard’s cloud classification scheme, Hamblyn also touches on quantitative measurement for wind speed, though he does not discuss earlier attempts to gather worldwide temperature and barometric observations or the instrumentation that made this possible. These early attempts (partially coordinated by John Herschel during his time at the Cape of Good Hope) had much in common with contemporary attempts to gather global data on the Earth’s magnetic field and worldwide tidal levels. These were important aspects in the narrative toward uniformity and quantification that Hamblyn is constructing in this work, and I would have welcomed more discussion of how Howard’s own endeavors related to these activities of “big science”.

Hamblyn represents Luke Howard as a romantic hero of science, someone who brought scientific rigor the clouds without sacrificing their sublime aspects. This claim is buttressed by his discussion of the ways in which Howard’s work influenced the writings of such varied and prominent figures as Goethe in Germany and the English landscape painter John Constable. In parts of the work, however, this romanticization of Howard’s life and work is taken a bit far. In the sense of literary effect, this is not too much of a problem. It becomes more difficult, however, when Hamblyn takes liberties with his source materials to connect dots related to the influence or motivations of his characters. Phrases like “Howard surely thought” or “certainly felt” litter the narrative.

Whether you’re interested in the history of science or simply want to know more about how the clouds were brought within the remit of natural philosophy, this is an accessible and compelling work. If you’re hoping to learn more about the physical nature and structure of the clouds themselves though, this may not be the place to start. The focus is on Howard and the human aspect of science—showing how the scientific is often tied closely with the ascetic. It is a book about the naming of clouds, only secondarily about the physical understanding of clouds. As with so many things in science though, Hamblyn effectively shows how objects must be named before they can be understood.

The Cult of Pythagoras

The Cult of Pythagoras: Math and MythsThe Cult of Pythagoras: Math and Myths by Alberto A. Martinez

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Everyone knows that Pythagoras was an early Greek mathematician, that he proved the Pythagorean theorem, and that he was one of the first to glimpse our modern conception of the world– that the universe can be described by numbers. Everyone “knows” this, but is there actually any historical basis to these claims? What do we really know about Pythagoras and what he did, and how much of what is taught about him in math classes is actually myth? Apparently quite a bit, according to Alberto Martinez.

The Cult of Pythagoras could have as easily been titled The Myths of Pythagoras. Martinez, a historian of science at the University of Texas, Austin, convincingly argues in the first two chapters of this work that the foundation on which we’ve built the myth of Pythagoras and his accomplishments is very thin indeed. Martinez does what generations of math historians and popularizers of science have failed to do: drill down to the source material and examine what ancient authorities actually have to say about the man. What he finds is that the earliest accounts are vague, contradictory, and emphasize Pythagoras’s mythical attributes– his teachings as a religious figure and his reported miracles– as much as they do his mathematics. What fascinates Martinez is the way that these accounts have been distorted and magnified over the centuries until we get the Pythagoras of modern conception today: the veritable father of mathematics.

Pythagoras actually takes up only fraction of this book. The subtitle, “Math and Myths,” gives a better indication of the bulk of the work. Besides Pythagoras, Martinez debunks other famous myths from the history of mathematics. Gauss finding the sum of all integers from 1 to 100 during a grade school exercise. Euler getting imaginary numbers wrong. Galois’ tragic tale. The golden ratio popping up everyone where in nature and art and architecture. If the book was simply a historian of science plumbing the depths of the historical source material and making modern promulgators of these stories look foolish, it would be worth the admission alone.

But Martinez has a deeper program here. There’s a fundamental myth about mathematics that he uses many of these other minor myths to explode. And that is the Platonic conception of mathematics as something somehow independent of the physical world itself, existing beyond our own mental constructions. This is the perception of mathematics existing eternal and unchanging, of mathematical discovery as not inventing new systems but instead discovering truths that were there all along. What Martinez sees instead, when he looks at the history of mathematics, is the story of things being formalized and formulated, not discovered. In particular, Martinez examines the nature of imaginary numbers, the problem of dividing by zero, and the rules regulating multiplication by negatives. These are not mathematical properties written in stone, Martinez argues, though they’re often taught that way. They are instead conventions that developed slowly over time.

Against a mathematical Platonism on the one hand and a radical constructivism on the other, Martinez ventures into philosophy and poses his own system of mathematical pluralism. Some fundamental tenants of mathematics are true independent of human though. 2 + 2 will always equal 4, for instance, whether or not there is anyone around to see or discover this fact. But other mathematical principles are constructed, like William Hamilton’s quaternions. The problem is, Martinez doesn’t provide us with any way of distinguishing which portions of mathematics fall into which category. Are the principles of Euclidean geometry independent of human thought? Would the Pythagorean theorem hold for all right triangles, regardless of whether there were humans around to mentally construct them? Or does the construction of self-consistent non-Euclidean geometries argue against this? There’s fertile ground for philosophical speculation there, which I would have liked to have seen Martinez follow up on.

At the end of the book, Martinez returns to Pythagoras. Why is it so easy to hang accomplishments on this man’s name without any secure historical basis? Beyond mathematics, Martinez explains, Pythagoras also gets attributions from religion, new age thought, philosophy, alchemy, astronomy, and more. Here Martinez ventures into sociology, explaining how accomplishments (whether actual or not) tend to accrue to people who are already “famous.” The very paucity of real data regarding Pythagoras, Martinez concludes, makes him a sort of vessel in which all these attributes can be poured, a well-known cipher from antiquity for our own values that we wish to project into the past.

In sum, The Cult of Pythagoras, though the prose is in places is uneven and the book itself wanders in the multiple points it makes, is a powerful argument for expelling myth from the teaching of mathematics. The history of mathematics itself, based not on unfounded stories but on the real historical events and accomplishments, is far more interesting and compelling than the unhelpful myths that are propagated regarding mathematicians and the practice of mathematics itself. Martinez’s scholarship is grounded on what the texts actually tell us, and I heartily recommend to anyone teaching mathematics. The chapters on Pythagoras alone make this worth any mathematician’s bookshelf.



And this is me with my best (and unfortunately completely unintentional) mad scientist face. I presented a poster on the Dioptrice project, a database of pre-1775 refracting telescopes that I’ve been working on as a research assistant for the past few years at the Adler Planetarium as part of my graduate program in the history and philosophy of science at Notre Dame. I didn’t win the student poster presentation, but I did garner some good publicity.

A writer for ScienceNOW, the online publication of the AAAS, picked up the story and wrote up a summary of the Dioptrice project you can view here.

I got a call a few days later from another writer, this time for the science news site motherboard.tv, who wanted to do a piece on the project. His story is here.

Essays from the Edinburgh and Quarterly Reviews

Essays from the Edinburgh and Quarterly Reviews by John F.W. Herschel

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Historians of Victorian science often speak about a common intellectual context that fragmented in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The growth of scientific disciplines, the specialization of fields, and the proliferation of specialized journals made it difficult to stay abreast of all developments in science or maintain a synthetic view of the entire field. What’s more, as science became professionalized, science writing moved to periodicals and publications written specifically for scientists. There arose a divide between science and popular writings or cultural criticism that largely remains to this day.

The Edinburgh and Quarterly Reviews represented what popular, high-brow literature looked like before these changes took place. In their glory days at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Reviews were a place to discuss politics and culture– including science. This collection of essays and poems by John Herschel illustrates the place that science held in popular culture. Though largely forgotten today, Herschel was arguably the leading popular figure in science in the generation before Einstein. In these essays he discusses everything from Laplace’s celestial mechanics to Whewell’s philosophy of science to Quetelet’s statistics. What’s fascinating is the detailed (though largely non-mathematical) treatment he goes into for a “popular” audience. These essays, important for historians of Victorian society in general and astronomy in particular, are recommended reading (or, more likely, skimming) for anyone who is interested in the sort of treatment science was given in the Victorian period for the general, educated reader.

The Sun Kings

The Sun Kings: The Unexpected Tragedy of Richard Carrington and the Tale of How Modern Astronomy BeganThe Sun Kings: The Unexpected Tragedy of Richard Carrington and the Tale of How Modern Astronomy Began by Stuart Clark

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I don’t get to read a lot of popularizations in the course of my research on nineteenth-century astronomy, so when this one came across my desk I was on the one hand excited about a change of pace (“captivating, fast-paced” says Dava Sobel on the cover) and on the other figuring I’d be skimming much of it and rolling my eyes a lot. I tend to do this with books that have long and overly-dramatic subtitles like “The Unexpected Tragedy of Richard Carrington and the Tale of How Modern Astronomy Began.”

I was half right. I did indeed do a lot of skimming, but I also did much less eye-rolling than I anticipated. Clark weaves a compelling tale, even if you don’t consider an understanding of the dynamic Earth-Sun relationship (think SOHO and Spaceweather.com) to be the beginning of modern astronomy. (I don’t.) The book is a bit less than the subtitle makes it out to be, as I’m still not  sure what Carrington’s “unexpected tragedy” was or how it relates to the scientific quest to understand the Sun’s interaction with the Earth, but it was a quite enjoyable romp through the world of Victorian astronomy.

Because it’s such an interesting place, Victorian astronomy, you almost can’t help to tell a compelling story if you go into it with some historical grounding and a flair for narrative. Clark treats one aspect of what was happening during this period: the development of solar astronomy. At the beginning of the 1800s, no one had any idea what the structure of the Sun was or how it generated its energy. One prevailing theory was that it was composed of a solid (and possibly inhabited!) core surrounded by a luminous atmosphere. Sunspots were rifts in this solar atmosphere. Clarke recounts how a series of dedicated astronomers– both professional and amateur– deduced a link between sunspots, the solar cycle, and effects on the Earth such as magnetic disturbances and auroral activity. Carrington is simply one of a cast that includes many important astronomers from this period, though Carrington’s drive and complex personal life, as well as his final demise (and this is likely the tragedy referred to in the subtitle, though seemingly unrelated to solar physics) make him an especially compelling figure.

Even if you’re not interested in the ins and outs of the interaction between the Sun and the Earth’s magnetic field or the advances in spectroscopy and photography that made the discoveries documented in this book possible, it’s the historical characters like Carrington who make studies in Victorian science so readable. Carrington was one of many amateur astronomers during this period who made their fortune in business (in Carrington’s case a brewery) and then used this wealth to build elaborate personal observatories where they could pursue astronomy as a hobby. Carrington devoted himself to solar astronomy and became a recognized authority on the subject. Besides him though, the pages are filled with other characters equally interesting: Airy, the Astronomer Royal and the story’s villain, storming about at Greenwich pursuing mathematical accuracy and largely dismissive of the new physical astronomy; de la Rue laboring in Spain to photograph the Sun’s atmosphere for the first time during a solar eclipse; Maunder taking up Carrington’s work after Carrington’s death and marrying the young mathematician hired to aid his calculations. Interesting characters pursuing interesting work. Maybe exaggerated or characatured just a bit, but they all come in and out of the story so quickly and in such succession that Clark can’t be blamed much for emphasizing their most interesting features.

It was an exciting time in astronomy, and Clark captures this. I’ll keep it on the shelf, because it would be ideal book report material for an undergraduate astronomy course. A historian will find Clark’s lack of careful documentation maddening and his rhetoric at times excessive or overblown, but a student (or reader) with a passing interest in the history of astronomy might find it a door to a truly remarkable period in history.



One of the largest and longest-running projects I’ve been working on as part of my research fellowship at Notre Dame and the Adler Planetarium has been Dioptrice, a database of surviving pre-1775 refracting telescopes. The brainchild of the former chief curator at the Adler, Dioptrice is the first step toward a richer history of the telescope: its origins, evolution, and diffusion as well as popular perceptions of the instrument in works of art and early books and manuscripts. The principle investigators of the project, which is funded by NSF and NEH grants, travel the world looking for early telescopes in museums and private collections. They analyze and photograph them and then send the data to me, where I add it to the database. I also scour catalogues and websites, initiate contact with additional collections, and search the rare book collection at the Adler for early telescope images. All of this goes into the database, which has been slowly building for the past few years.

Now it’s ready to go public. Information on hundreds of telescopes, fully searchable by year, type, maker, country of origin, and just about every other category you can think of. All hosted online in a sleek website designed by Parallactic Consulting but curated by yours truly. If you’re interested in the history of the telescope as art, artifact, or instrument, feel free to look around. If you know of telescopes that should be hosted here, let me know.

Have fun: www.dioptrice.com.


Update: I presented a poster on Dioptrice at the AAAS meeting in Chicago yesterday. ScienceNOW, the online AAAS science magazine, just published an article on the database, and I was featured as part of the #scienceWOW video series talking about William Herschel. (You can see all the videos, including one by Alan Alda, here.)

Calendar of the Correspondence of Sir John Herschel

A Calendar Of The Correspondence Of Sir John HerschelA Calendar Of The Correspondence Of Sir John Herschel by Michael J. Crowe

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

John Herschel was the most famous scientist you never heard of. His name may sound familiar (especially if you’ve spent much time around me), but if so you’re likely thinking of his father, the astronomer famous for discovering the planet Uranus. Yet during his lifetime John Herschel, whose life and career spanned most of the nineteenth century, was Britain’s leading scientist (though the term itself is a bit anachronistic here) and a prime player in the international scientific community. I tell people he was the Stephen Hawking of the nineteenth century: an astronomer himself and the person people thought of when they envisioned the epitome of the scientific life. His generation considered him second to Newton in English science, so much so that he was buried next to the famous physicist in Westminster Abbey upon his death.

So why has no one heard of him today? There are lots of likely reasons. Though his career spanned decades, he was the last of the natural philosophers, the scientists who could still expect to have a mastery of all scientific fields. In astronomy, he was the first (and perhaps the only) to closely survey the entire northern and southern skies with a large optical telescope. But despite his influence he had no single large discovery (like his father’s planet), and his work was quickly overshadowed by the developments of spectroscopy and photography. In mathematics, he is largely the reason we use the Continental form of calculus instead of the Newtonian fluxions that held sway in England until the early 1800s, but the history of mathematical analysis doesn’t make great cover. He did important work in optics, chemistry, and photography as well, before they were considered separate fields. He coined the phrases snapshot, negative, and positive. His very omnicompetence may have helped efface his memory. He doesn’t have one specific theory or field of speciality to attach to him, like Maxwell or Darwin.

This breadth also contributes to another aspect of Herschel’s current anonymity: lack of a good biography. An adequate biography of Herschel would be a huge undertaking. The only attempt so far is a book-length sketch by a German librarian, which has been translated into English (Gunther Buttmann’s The Shadow of the Telescope). Herschel is starting to get more treatment though. He features prominently in Laura Snyder’s The Philosophical Breakfast Club and Richard Holmes’ Age of Wonder. In both of these however, Herschel himself is not the primary focus.

Several years ago Dr. Michael Crowe, a scholar on my dissertation committee, decided he would attempt a Herschel biography. What he realized very quickly though was that the amount of material that needed to be processed for such a project was immense. Correspondence to and from Herschel alone (not to mention his published works and his journals) amounted to more than 14,000 letters scattered in repositories, libraries, and archives all over the world. The first task would be to assemble and organize this correspondence, and the results (after a decade of work involving dozens of graduate students) was the massive Calendar of the Correspondence of Sir John Herschel.

This is not a book to be read straight through (unless you’re writing your dissertation on Herschel). It is truly massive, for one thing, weighing in at over 700 pages. And the content is not narrative but instead chronological summaries of all of Herschel’s correspondence. Every letter (known at the time) that he wrote or received has been read, dated, and summarized. And then indexed, which is perhaps the most useful thing of all. Because Herschel really was at the center of an immense network of scientists, and if you are interested in any aspect of what might loosely be termed Victorian science (and why wouldn’t you be, because this is the age of steam, electricity, exploration– science becoming the science we know today) you’re likely to find that Herschel corresponded with someone about it. Pretty much every big name (and several smaller ones) in the history of nineteenth-century science makes an appearance.

For a Herschel scholar, this is an absolutely essential resource. Besides a complete guide to his letters, Crowe also includes very large and very useful appendices listing all of Herschel’s published works as well as a bibliography of secondary works on Herschel up to the time of publishing (and while there is still no book-length treatment of Herschel’s life, the huge amount of papers and essays written about him shows his enduring influence on a wide range of fields). Though the book is currently out of print, the information entailed is available in an even more useful form, fully searchable and online, as a database hosted by the Adler Planetarium.

Venture forth: http://historydb.adlerplanetarium.org.

Merchants of Doubt

Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global WarmingMerchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Naomi Oreskes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was asked a while ago by a local paper to comment on the issue of global warming. When I had difficulty reducing my views to a quotable byte, I wrote an editorial for the paper. In the editorial, I used the term “manufacture a controversy,” alluding to the fact that while the scientific consensus on global warming is established and has been for decades, there remains the perception for most people that climate change is not well understood and the science is questionable.

This manufactured controversy is what Oreskes and Conway, two historians of science, explore in this book. In several exhaustively-researched chapters, they draw links between “expert” deniers of the dangers of tobacco, second-hand smoke, ozone layer depletion, acid rain, and finally global warming. In each of these cases, Oreskes and Conway argue, there was a clear scientific consensus deliberately attacked by a handful of skeptics. These attacks resulted in perceived controversy for the popular press and ultimately influenced politicians and policy—usually as an argument for not doing anything.

The story the authors tell begins with the tobacco industry, which—as scientific evidence regarding the dangers of smoking and second-hand smoke mounted—enlisted individual scientists and publicity firms to mount a campaign of doubt, making it appear as though the scientific community was divided and more research needed to be done. Oreskes and Conway draw much of their evidence from documents that have been recently made public through the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library (http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu). After this, they argue, many of the scientists and organizations enlisted by the tobacco industry took the same approach to a wide variety of environmental topics, including and culminating with global warming.

Popular perception is biased against the true scientific viewpoint by two factors: a “fair reporting” approach that placed the skeptics’ viewpoint (even when only held by a small minority) on equal footing with the mainline scientific opinion and the fact that skeptics published most of their work in the popular press while the evidence and research on global warming done by the actual scientific community appeared (and continues to appear) in peer-reviewed journals with very small audiences.

So what’s at play here? Do Oreskes and Conway have a conspiracy theory? No. What they have is a group of scientists who came to prominence during the Cold War and then, late in their careers and after their own research days were over, came to see environmentalism as the newest threat to American liberty. The common theme running through tobacco smoke, acid rain, DDT, ozone depletion, and now global warming is that each represents a market failure—a situation in which the true costs are hidden or not quantifiable by the free market. In such situations, government regulation is often necessary. The villains in Oreskes and Conway’s narrative are a small minority of scientists who did not want this to happen and so collaborated with industry, policy-makers, and the media to perpetuate a sense of controversy where the science was clear.

The narrative is compelling. I recommended the chapter on global warming for a discussion group, and though each chapter is densely researched, a friend told me that it read for him like a murder mystery. The historical chapters show two historians of contemporary science at their finest. The concluding chapters, in which Oreskes and Conway offer their take on why controversy is created on these issues, blaming it on “free market fundamentalists” who cannot accept government regulation in any form and are willing to smear any science that disagrees with them through unscientific means, hit hard and—I feel—largely accurately. Finally, Oreskes and Conway offer some insight into why the public often goes along with this: a misunderstanding of how science actually works and a confusion between scientific consensus (attained) and absolute proof or clarity (never attained in science).

Read it. Recommend it to your friends. It is easy to understand why the tobacco industry would want to manufacture doubt about the true costs of their products; it should be fairly easy to see why many today would want to do the same regarding the true cost of fossil fuels. This book connects the dots.

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