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35 posts categorized "Curiosity"

16 December 2016

9 famous scientists and their PhD theses

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If you are currently working towards a PhD you might worry that your thesis is destined for life as a handy doorstop, or to gather dust on a forgotten Library shelf. But this work can be a stepping stone - either to a career in academia or something else altogether. With this in mind we decided to check out the British Library’s electronic theses service EThOS to see what treasures we could unearth from influential scientists while they were lowly graduate students.

From 1970-1974 Brian May, Queen’s famous guitarist, studied for a PhD investigating interplanetary dust in the solar system. He abandoned his studies when Queen started to have international success. Many years later he returned to Imperial to complete his PhD studies. His final thesis was awarded in 2008 and was entitled A survey of radial velocities in the zodiacal dust cloud.

Brian Harold May_PhD thesis EThOS

Peter Higgs, who shot to fame in 2013 after his discovery of the Higgs Boson (or God particle) was honoured with the Nobel prize in Physics, started his scientific career studying for a PhD - mysteriously entitled “Some problems in the theory of molecular vibrations”.

D-Ream singer turned astrophysicist Brian Cox started his academic career with a PhD studying in high energy particle physics at the University of Manchester. Things could only get better from there... (sorry!)

By cellanr (Prof Brian Cox) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons


Rosalind Franklin is famous for producing the X-ray diffraction images of DNA that led to the discovery of its double helical structure. Her PhD research focussed on the molecular structure of coal and other organic materials.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered radio pulsars while studying for a PhD at the University of Cambridge in the 1960s.  A visualisation of one of these pulsars was famously used as the cover art for Joy Division's best-selling album Unknown Pleasures.

JoyDivision_UnknownPleasures and Jocelyn Bell Burnell
Jocelyn bell Burnell image by Roger W Haworth (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons


Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking obtained his PhD from the University of Cambridge in 1966 after being diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 1963.  His PhD thesis, properties of expanding universes describes his theory for the creation of the universe and was inspired by Roger Penrose's work on space time singularities.

Jim Al-Khalili presents popular science on radio and TV including Radio 4’s The Life Scientific. He started his career at the University of Surrey with a PhD on “Immediate energy deuteron elastic scattering from nuclei in a three-body model”. Jim (or Jameel) Al-Khalili is now Professor of Physics at the University of Surrey.

Jim Al-Khalili PhD thesis
By Vera de Kok (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Sir Mark Walport investigated the “biology of complement receptors” for his PhD at the University of Cambridge. Complement receptors are key part of our immune system and are responsible for the detection of pathogens. He now serves the lofty position of Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Government is former director of the biomedical research funder the Wellcome Trust.

Sir Paul Nurse is now President of the Royal Society and Director of the Francis Crick Institute. His PhD at the University of East Anglia investigated the organisation of amino acids in a species of yeast called Candia Utitlis.  Nurse continued to work on yeast after his PhD and in 1976 discovered the molecules which control the cell cycle in fission yeast. This discovery was honoured with the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2001.

Katie Howe

22 November 2016

Stephen Hales: Reverend, Researcher, Reformer

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In the final episode of “Treasures of the British Library” series (tonight at 9pm on Sky Arts) we explored the ancestry of trumpeter Alison Balsom. Alison is descended from the 18th century clergyman and polymath Stephen Hales (1677-1761) and she was keen to find out more about this remarkable man.

The first item I showed Alison was Hales’ seminal work “Vegetable Staticks” or to give it its full title “Vegetable Staticks: or an account of some statical experiments on the sap in vegetables: being an essay towards a natural history of vegetation”. Alas, it was not an age of punchy titles. Hales was interested in understanding how plants give off and take up water and in this book he outlines the many meticulous experiments that seek to understand these processes. Hales even invented the ‘pneumatic trough’ (see below) and used this to collect gases given off by plants. He didn’t however analyse the composition of this gas, since at that time air was understood to be a pure element. It was not until many years later that Joseph Priestley and Antoine Lavoisier discovered oxygen was a component of air, making use of Hales’ pneumatic trough to collect, analyse and separate gases.

Vegetable Staticks Stephen Hales p262
Stephen Hales' pneumatic trough. From Vegetable Staticks p260

Some of Hales’ conclusions were remarkably prescient outlining the process of photosynthesis many years before its chemical basis was elucidated. One key quote draws parallels between the function of the leaves of plants with animals' lungs.

Vegetable Staticks Stephen Hales p326
From Vegetable Staticks. p326


Two pages later Hales also postulates that light might be a form of energy which is needed by the plant to survive.

Vegetable Staticks Stephen Hales p327
From Vegetable Staticks. p327


Alison and I then went on to look at Hales’ “A Description of Ventilators”. One of Hale’s social projects was the invention of ventilating systems for ships and prisons where overcrowding meant that stale air and unhygienic conditions were rife. Hales’ invention was essentially a giant set of bellows which removed the noxious air. The ventilator was initially used to dry grain for preservation but was eventually rolled out to ships, hospitals and prisons where it saved many lives.

Last but not least we came to Reverend Hales’ “A Friendly Admonition to Drinkers of Gin, Brandy and Other Spirituous liquors” which was published anonymously in 1751. Hales was a strong supporter of the Gin Acts of the early 18th century where gin sales were subject to high taxes in an effort to reduce consumption. In the tract he outlines the many physiological consequences of consuming as he called them, “most intoxicating and baneful spirits”. Readers are warned that liquors ‘frequently cause those Obstructions and Stoppages in the Liver, which occasion the Jaundice, Dropsy and many other fatal diseases” and “impair the mind as much as the body”.  However the message was as much moral as it was medical with Hales condemning drunkards and the great sin of drinking throughout.

A friendly admonition Stephen Hales
Stephen Hales' A Friendly Admonition... Title page and p25


Although Hales trained as a clergyman and did not have any formal scientific training his achievements rival many of the well-known scientists of the day. Despite this Hales does not tend to feature alongside famous scientists in the history books so we were pleased to be able to shed some light on this interesting character as part of the Treasures of the British Library series.

Katie Howe

With thanks to Tanya Kirk and Duncan Heyes for help sourcing Stephen Hales material from the British Library collections.

27 October 2016

Replace, Reduce, Refine: Animals in Research.

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PhD placement student Mandy Kleinsorge looks back on our most recent TalkScience@BL event.

TalkScience@BL - Replace, Reduce, Refine: Animals in Research

The use of animals in research is as controversial as ever. It is well-known that animal research has brought about some great discoveries in the past1, such as the development of Herceptin and Tamoxifen for the treatment of breast cancer or the discovery of bronchodilators to treat the symptoms of asthma. Today, the UK regulations for research involving animals are among the tightest in the world. In consequence, it is illegal in the UK (and in Europe) to use an animal in research if there is a viable non-animal alternative2. Despite this, the number of experimental procedures on animals in the UK has been steadily increasing over the last years3 and funding of non-animal research accounted for only 0.036 % of the UK national R&D science expenditure4 (2011). Apparently, three quarters of Britons agreed that there needs to be more research carried out into alternatives to animal experimentation5 (2012).

On 13th October, we invited experts in the field to the British Library to publicly discuss the current state of alternatives to animals, as well as the efforts that are made to improve the welfare of animals that are still needed in scientific research. The concept of reducing or even substituting animals in scientific experiments (or at least improving the conditions under which these experiments are conducted) is not new. In 1959, Russell and Burch established the principles of the Three Rs (Replacement, Reduction and Refinement)6 which came to be EU-wide guidelines for the more ethical use – or non-use – of animals in research. Today, a number of organisations campaign for openness and education as to why animals are needed in some areas of research, but also as to where we might not actually need them anymore. One of those is the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement & Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) who we collaborated with on our TalkScience event ‘Replace, Reduce, Refine: Animals in Research’. The event was chaired by Stephen Holgate, Professor of Medicine at the University of Southampton and Board Chair of the NC3Rs.

Taking a closer look at Robin's amoeba.
Taking a closer look at Robin's amoeba.

The first speaker of the evening was Robin Williams (Head of the Biomedical Sciences Centre at Royal Holloway, University of London). Robin uses Dictyostelium, a social amoeba and therefore non-animal model, to conduct research into neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s. He even brought some amoeba for the audience to look at! Besides bringing awareness to the fact that this organism can actually represent a viable alternative to animal experimentation, he also drew attention to two big problems that researchers using animal alternatives are facing. Acquiring funding and publishing scientific papers are the most important tasks of senior researchers and both of these are complicated by a limited acceptance of non-animal models. Although 3Rs practice is increasingly advocated in the UK, the peer review process regulating funding and publication of research projects is a global endeavour. Robin therefore called for a shift in attitude towards alternatives to animals on a world-wide level.

Our second speaker, Sally Robinson (Head of Laboratory Animal Science UK at AstraZeneca), shed some light into the use of animals in pharmaceutical research. Sally stressed the importance of using the most appropriate model – animal or non-animal – to answer the scientific question. This is not as trivial as it sounds, and is key to obtaining meaningful results and minimising use of animals where possible. The welfare of the animals used in drug development is equally important, as Sally illustrated with the refinement of dog housing. By optimising pen design7, the welfare of laboratory dogs can be drastically improved, and so can the quality of scientific research they’re involved in. Furthermore, Sally herself had a leading role in the challenging of the regulatory requirement for acute toxicity tests in drug development8, which ultimately changed international legislative guidance and reduced the number of animals needed in pharmaceutical research.

Our panel: Stephen Holgate, Robin Williams, Sally Robinson and Robin Lovell-Badge.
Our panel: Stephen Holgate, Robin Williams, Sally Robinson and Robin Lovell-Badge.

Our last speaker was Robin Lovell-Badge (Head of the Division of Stem Cell Biology and Developmental Genetics at the Francis Crick Institute). He opened his talk by endorsing openness in animal research. This is a welcome and necessary trend of the past few years – after animal research had been conducted behind closed doors in the UK for decades for fear of violent actions. The ‘Concordat on Openness on Animal Research’9 was initiated in 2012 and has been signed by 107 UK organisations to date. Robin explained which animals the newly built Francis Crick Institute will work with and why, and how Home Office guidelines on animal research have helped inform the design of their state-of-the-art facilities. He also mentioned some of their work that doesn’t involve animals, like research using induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. These iPS cells resemble embryonic stem cells and can be generated from any living cell of a human donor. They are able to differentiate into virtually every cell type of the body, presenting an alternative source of human tissue for drug screenings and the modelling of diseases10. This fairly new technology might even be useful as an alternative to animal experiments in the future.

In discussion with the audience it became clear that the UK is leading the world in the realisation of the 3Rs. However, there is still room for much improvement in furthering the 3Rs. While better experimental design using robust biostatistics and in-depth training of scientists handling animals is vital, increased acceptance of negative data would avoid unnecessary duplication of experiments using animals.

The discussion continued after the event.
The discussion continued after the event.

When asked whether an animal-free research in the immediate future was possible, the panel agreed that it wasn’t. A lot more research into alternatives as well as a change in people’s mindsets is needed beforehand. But how do we exert pressure for this change? Do we need animal activists to do this, one audience member asked. Good question. It is definitely necessary to bring different types of people together to have more balanced and open discussions about this emotive topic. So, thanks to the speakers and the audience of this TalkScience event for joining us to disuss this important issue.

Further reading:

1 Understanding Animal Research. Forty reasons why we need animals in research.
2 Animals in Science Committee. Consolidated version of the Animals Scientific Procedures Act 1986.
3 Home Office. Statistics of scientific procedures on living animals, Great Britain 2015.
4 Taylor, K. EU member state government contribution to alternative methods.
5 Ipsos MORI. Views on the use of animals in scientific research.
6 Russell, WMS and Burch, RL. The principles of humane experimental technique.
7 Refining Dog Care. Dog unit and home pen design.
8 Robinson, S et al. A European pharmaceutical company initiative challenging the regulatory requirement for acute toxicity studies in pharmaceutical drug development.
9 Understanding Animal Research. Concordat on Openness on Animal Research.
10 Takahashi, K and Yamanaka, S. A decade of transcription factor-mediated reprogramming to pluripotency.


21 October 2016

Britain's first nose job

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Science Content Expert Philip Eagle explores the first plastic surgery operation in Britain.

On 22nd October 1814, Joseph Constantine Carpue (1764-1846) performed the first plastic surgery operation in Britain, reconstructing the nose of an army officer whose nose had collapsed due to long-term mercury treatments for a liver complaint. The operation lasted fifteen minutes, with no anaesthetic. Three days later, the patient’s dressing was removed, and on observing the successful results a friend of the patient exclaimed: “My God, there is a nose!”

Illustration by Charles Turner from Carpue's book
Illustration by Charles Turner from Carpue’s book, digitised by the Wellcome Library and released under Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 licence.

Carpue was inspired to perform the operation after reading reports of successful nasal reconstructions in India, using skin flaps from the cheek or forehead. The most famous of these was a 1794 report in the Gentleman’s Magazine, describing the reconstruction of the nose of a man named Cowasjee. Cowasjee had been mutilated by the forces of Tipu Sultan during the Third Anglo-Mysore War for working for the British.

Broadside on Cowasjee's case published by James Wales
Cowasjee’s case published by James Wales, digitised by the Wellcome Library and released under CC BY 4.0 licence.

Nasal reconstructions had been practised as a relatively routine procedure in India for centuries. This was driven by the common use of nasal mutilation in India as a means of punishment or private vengeance for various forms of immorality. The procedures are described in two well-known early Indian medical works, the Suśruta Saṃhitā, thought to date to the middle of the first millennium BCE, and the Aṣṭāṅgahṛdayasaṃhitā, believed to date from the sixth century CE*.  By the nineteenth century the technique had been handed down through separate families in three different parts of India.

Rhinoplasty by transfer of skin flaps from other body parts had also been practiced in Italy in the sixteenth century, most famously by the Bolognese surgeon Gaspare Tagliacozzi (1545-1599). However, it had declined following Tagliacozzi’s death, due to a mixture of professional politics in Italy, misconceptions about the nature of the procedure, and moral disapproval of an operation that was often performed to repair damage done by syphilis. (Even in his own book, Carpue felt at pains to insist that the mercuric treatment that had damaged his first patient’s nose was not for syphilis.)

Carpue published a book in 1816 on the subject, discussing his predecessors and inspiration and then describing two cases of nasal reconstruction that he had performed. The second was on a named patient, a Captain Latham whose nose had been injured during the Battle of Almuera, in the Peninsular War. Carpue’s work inspired further practice by the German surgeon Carl Ferdinand von Gräfe, who is credited with coining the term “plastic surgery”.

Philip Eagle

With thanks to Pasquale Manzo (Curator, Sanskrit Collections) for information on British Library holdings of ancient Indian medical texts.

Further reading:


11 October 2016

Happy Ada Lovelace Day!

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It’s Ada Lovelace Day today! Now in its 8th year, this special day aims to raise the profile of women working in science, technology, engineering and maths, but also to create role models to encourage girls to pursue scientific careers. The name giver herself was a prime example of a woman following her inclination for analytical thinking. Ada Lovelace made a name for herself as the first computer programmer at a time when women weren’t even allowed to vote.

But she was not the only woman who contributed to our understanding of science. The list of scientific heroines in history is surprisingly long, but mostly unheard-of. It comprises the well-known names of Marie Curie-Skłodowska, Rosalind Franklin and Florence Nightingale, but did you know the following female scientists?


Beatrix Potter's illustration
Beatrix Potter's illustrations of fungi in 'Wayside and woodland fungi' by W.P.K. Findlay (shelf mark X.329/15466)

Beatrix Potter (1866 – 1943)

The name of Beatrix Potter might be familiar to those who grew up with ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’. But besides being a famous author and illustrator of children’s books, she was also a natural scientist. Her love of flora, fauna and landscape, combined with her artistic talent and her ability to closely observe her surroundings, provided the ideal basis for this occupation. However, being a woman, she was rejected to study at the Royal Botanical Gardens. So Beatrix continued to study nature – fungi in particular – on her own and recorded her observations in beautiful drawings and watercolours, ultimately receiving the wide respect she deserved in the field of mycology. We hold a textbook on fungi at the British Library in which a collection of her brilliant illustrations has been used.


Agnes Mary Clerke (1842 – 1907)

Thanks to her parents, Agnes Mary Clerke was educated broadly in scientific subjects and languages, but it was the field of astronomy that became her passion. She started to write about the history of astronomy at the age of 15 and, after having her first important article published in the Edinburgh Review, she was repeatedly asked to contribute to scientific publications. She wrote the main article on astronomy as well as biographies of famous scientists for the Encyclopaedia Britannica. She also published books of her own, her best known work being ‘A Popular History of Astronomy during the Nineteenth Century’ (which, of course, we have at the British Library). Although Agnes Mary Clerke was not a practical astronomer herself, she gained the respect of the profession through her interpretation of astronomical research, and by doing so, also introduced astronomy to a wider public.


Sophie Germain's letter
A letter written by Sophie Germain under her pseudonym M. Le Blanc to C.F. Gauss (shelf mark 10902.h.5)

Sophie Germain (1776-1831)

Sophie Germain’s interest in mathematics was sparked at an early age, but in order to be able to study it, she had to overcome her parents’ opposition first and the society’s prejudice against her sex next. The latter she did by assuming the identity of M. Le Blanc, a former student of the Ecole Polytechnique near Paris, and sending the answers to his homework to his professor. She also corresponded with the famous mathematician Carl-Friedrich Gauss under her pseudonym. An impression of their discussions can be obtained through the letters in the British Library’s collection. In both instances, she was eventually unmasked, but was accepted immediately by the two men – and eventually by the whole scientific community – as an equal. Sophie Germain is best known for her progress on the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem and her work on elasticity which to this day underpins the science of building construction.


Science Fiction by Margaret Cavendish
Margaret Cavendish's science fiction work 'The Blazing World' (shelf mark 8407.h.10) 

Margaret Cavendish (1623 – 1673)

Back when scientists were still called natural philosophers, Margaret Cavendish established herself as the first English female representative of this profession. She wrote treatises on a variety of subjects, including gender, power, scientific method and philosophy and by doing so helped popularise the scientific revolution. Although she was widely known (and often ridiculed) for her eccentricity, her innovative views added to the scientific discussion of her time. Not only was she one of the first to contest the validity of theological aspects in science, she also argued for the education of women and is claimed to be an early opponent of animal testing. On top of that, she managed to write one of the first examples of science fiction, ‘The Blazing World’, which has been digitised by the British Library and can be read online.


Hildegard von Bingen (1098 – 1179)

The German Benedictine abbess Hildegard von Bingen was what you call a polymath. She was a theologian, philosopher, author, linguist and composer, but also a physician and natural scientist. While most of her non-scientific work was heavily influenced by the visions she is said to have received from a young age onwards, her botanical and medicinal texts are based on observations and experience. You can find a translation of her first book on the treatment of diseases ‘Physica’ at the British Library. Some of the remedies she described in her works might seem far-fetched from a modern scientific point of view, but she also made many accurate observations and is with good reason considered to be the founder of scientific natural history in Germany.


These five women achieved extraordinary things through their dedication to further scientific knowledge, even though (or possibly because?) they were women. Let them inspire you to strive for the same. Happy Ada Lovelace Day everyone!

Mandy Kleinsorge, PhD placement student


05 September 2016

Social Media Data: What’s the use?

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Team ScienceBL is pleased to bring you #TheDataDebates -  an exciting new partnership with the AHRC, the ESRC and the Alan Turing Institute. In our first event on 21st September we’re discussing social media. Join us!

Every day people around the world post a staggering 400 million tweets, upload 350 million photos to Facebook and view 4 billion videos on YouTube. Analysing this mass of data can help us understand how people think and act but there are also many potential problems.  Ahead of the event, we looked into a few interesting applications of social media data.

Politically correct? 

During the 2015 General Election, experts used a technique called sentiment analysis to examine Twitter users’ reactions to the televised leadership debates1. But is this type of analysis actually useful? Some think that tweets are spontaneous and might not represent the more calculated political decision of voters.

On the other side of the pond, Obama’s election strategy in 2012 made use of social media data on an unprecedented scale2. A huge data analytics team looked at social media data for patterns in past voter characteristics and used this information to inform their marketing strategy - e.g. broadcasting TV adverts in specific slots targeted at swing voters and virtually scouring the social media networks of Obama supporters on the hunt for friends who could be persuaded to join the campaign as well. 

Image from Flickr

In this year's US election, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are making the most of social media's huge reach to rally support. The Trump campaign has recently released the America First app which collects personal data and awards points for recruiting friends3. Meanwhile Democrat nominee Clinton is building on the work of Barack Obama's social media team and exploring platforms such as Pinterest and YouTube4. Only time will tell who the eventual winner will be.

Playing the market

You know how Amazon suggests items you might like based on the items you’ve browsed on their site? This is a common marketing technique that allows companies to re-advertise products to users who have shown some interest in the brand but might not have bought anything. Linking browsing history to social media comments has the potential to make this targeted marketing even more sophisticated4.

Credit where credit’s due?

Many ‘new generation’ loan companies don’t use a traditional credit checks but instead gather other information on an individual - including social media data – and then decide whether to grant the loan5. Opinion is divided as to whether this new model is a good thing. On the one hand it allows people who might have been rejected by traditional checks to get credit. But critics say that people are being judged on data that they assume is private. And could this be a slippery slope to allowing other industries (e.g. insurance) to gather information in this way? Could this lead to discrimination?

Image from Flickr

What's the problem?

Despite all these applications there’s lots of discussion about the best way to analyse social media data. How can we control for biases and how do we make sure our samples are representative? There are also concerns about privacy and consent. Some social media data (like Twitter) is public and can be seen and used by anyone (subject to terms and conditions). But most Facebook data is only visible to people specified by the user. The problem is: do users always know what they are signing up for?

Image from Pixabay

Lots of big data companies are using anonymised data (where obvious identifiers like name and date of birth are removed) which can be distributed without the users consent. But there may still be the potential for individuals to be re-identified - especially if multiple datasets are combined - and this is a major problem for many concerned with privacy.

If you are an avid social media user, a big data specialist, a privacy advocate or are simply interested in finding out more join us on 21st September to discuss further. Tickets are available here.

Katie Howe

08 August 2016

Local heroes: “Without the least sense of pain or the movement of a muscle”

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As part of a new series exploring local heroes in the Knowledge Quarter area, Philip Eagle reveals the curious history of anesthesia. 

Francis Boott. Image: Public domain

A short bus ride away from the British Library, at 52 Gower Street, a blue plaque records the site of the first operation under general anaesthesia in the UK. On 19th December 1846, the dentist James Robinson performed a tooth extraction on a Miss Lonsdale. At the time, 52 Gower Street was the home of Dr. Francis Boott, an American expatriate physician who had heard from friends of the development of diethyl ether as an anaesthetic by William Morton in Boston.

Robinson lived further down the street towards the West End, at 14 Gower Street, where he has his own blue plaque. As well as his work on anaesthetics, he was the author of The Surgical and Mechanical Treatment of the Teeth, claimed to be the first British dental textbook of real scientific quality. He would later become dentist to Prince Albert, and be significantly involved in the creation of the College of Dentistry and the National Dental Hospital.

In a letter to the Lancet, Boott described the operation with the following words:

“I beg to add, that on Saturday, the 19th, a firmly fixed molar tooth was extracted in my study from Miss Lonsdale, by Mr. Robinson, in the presence of my wife, two of my daughters, and myself, without the least sense of pain, or the movement of a muscle”

In a book published later in the year, Robinson himself stated that the patient was only thirteen years old, and reported that:

“She had not felt the slightest pain, but had been dreaming of the country”.

Anaesthesia blue plaques
Blue plaque images by Spudgun67 CC BY-SA 4.0

Subsequently in the nineteenth century, diethyl ether was largely replaced as a general anaesthetic in the UK by chloroform, which was less irritating to the throat and lungs and less likely to have the initially stimulant effect that ether had on some patients. Since the mid twentieth century, the most important inhaled anaesthetics have been the fluorinated alkane halothane and fluorinated ethers such as sevoflurane and desflurane, which are pharmacologically safer and more effective, and also physically safer due to their lower flammability.

Philip Eagle, STM Content Expert

Sources and further reading:

  • Anesthesiology, Science, Technology & Business (P) GY 30-E(4), since 2012 available electronically through Ovid in the Reading Rooms
  • Boott, F. Surgical operations performed during insensibility produced by the inhalation of sulphuric ether*, Lancet, 1847, 49 (1218): 5-8. General Reference Collection P.P.2787. Also available electronically through Science Direct in the Reading Rooms. * Note for chemists: “sulphuric ether” was a common name at the time for diethyl ether, due to its preparation by reacting ethanol with sulphuric acid. The chemical itself did not contain any sulphur.
  • British Journal of Anaesthesia, Science, Technology & Business (P) GY 30-E(2), since 2014 available electronically through OUP in the Reading Rooms
  • Ellis, R H. James Robinson: England’s true pioneer of anaesthesia. In The History of Anesthesia, Third International Symposium, Proceedings, 1992: 153-164. Document Supply 4317.854000. Available online.
  • Johnson, K B. Clinical pharmacology for anesthesiology. London: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015. Science, Technology & Business (B) 615.781
  • Pain, Document Supply 6333.795000, also available electronically through Ovid in the Reading Rooms
  • Robinson, J. Treatise on the inhalation of the vapour of ether for the prevention of pain in surgical operations, etc. London: Webster & Co. 1847. General Reference Collection
  • Robinson, J. The surgical and mechanical treatment of the teeth: including dental mechanics. London, 1846. General Reference Collection 1186.c.46 and RB.23.a.27503.
  • Shafer, S L and others. Stoelting’s pharmacology and physiology in anesthetic practice. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2015. Science, Technology & Business (B) 615.781.
  • Snow, S J. Blessed days of anaesthesia. New York: Oxford University Press. 2008. General Reference Collection YC.2009.a.15022

18 May 2016

Shakespeare on the couch: The bard and psychology

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To celebrate the opening of the British Library’s Shakespeare in Ten Acts exhibition, Paul Allchin explores Shakespeare’s perceptive understanding of human psychology.   

 “What makes Shakespeare eternal is his grasp of psychology. He knew how to nail stuff” Martin Freeman (Actor) 

Shakespeare -The Chandos portrait
The Chandos portrait, artist and authenticity unconfirmed. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London.

As far back as the ancient Greeks and Egyptians we have reflected on human behaviour and yet psychology was considered a branch of philosophy until the 1870s, from when it developed as an independent scientific discipline in Germany and the United States. Much has been written in the last couple of centuries on the psychology of Shakespeare and his dramatic works.

Shakespeare understood our inner demons and knew how to express them on the written page. For example Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure”, pinpoints man’s flaws, that so well, feeds the fuel for his dramas:

But man, proud man, Drest in a little brief authority, Most ignorant of what he’s most assur'd; 

His glassy essence, like an angry ape, Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven, As make the angels weep.

Whether it is man’s inflated views of himself or the range of emotions from love to anger, Shakespeare seemed always to have something to say. In Henry VIII, Act 1, Scene 1, he advises on  anger management:

“Be advised, heat not a furnace for your foe so hot, that it do singe yourself”.

The British Library has a rich and varied collection in psychology, counselling and psychoanalysis, both historical and current, as well as electronic journals and databases such as PsychInfo and PsychExtra.  Both the humanities and science reading rooms include works on the open shelves and we hold a wealth of psychology texts in our storage areas. Some of these are in our lending collection and can be requested through college and public libraries using their inter-library lending services.

An example of such reflective literature is the book entitled “The Vale of Soulmaking: the post-Kleinian model of the mind” by Meg Harris Williams, H.Karnac (Books) Ltd. 2005, shelf mark YC.2006.a.12437, which includes Chapter 7, “Cleopatra’s monument”. This chapter outlines the post Kleinian psychological perspective on some of Shakespeare’s works. 

The post Kleinian model of the mind is an aesthetic one, developed by W.R. Bion and Donald Meltzer and takes Melanie Klein’s ideas of our infant Self’s relationship to evolving “internalised objects”, often parental and the resolution of emotional turmoil through symbol formation, dreaming, envisioning, and counter-transference.

Procession of characters from Shakespeares Plays by an unknown artist
Procession of Characters from Shakespeare's Plays by an unknown 19th-century artist

Shakespeare’s literary power resides in him being one of the great literary symbol makers and metaphor developers, along with Milton, Keats, Homer and Sophocles, able to articulate and give form to man’s deepest desires and dilemmas. Shakespeare’s role in feeding food to psychology and the 19th and 20th century psychoanalysis tradition through his plays and dramas is a testament to his insights into human nature.

Freud, Jung, Klein, and the post Kleinians provide psychological meaning making frameworks, varied lenses through which contemporary thinkers can appreciate and understand Shakespeare’s works.

William Shakespeares First Folio
William Shakespeare's First Folio (Image: WIkipedia)


Some of our out of copyright books have been digitised and are available through Google books and the British Library Explore catalogue remotely e.g. The Psychology of Macbeth, a lecture, etc. by George Sexton, (active 1857-1887).

What is clear is that Shakespeare has an uncanny ability to create characters that are archetypal and sets up in his plays, the conflicts, challenges, resolutions and pitfalls found in our daily lives. He gave us the psychodramas on the stage through which we can project our internal worlds and learn from the characters he invented.    

Paul Allchin, Science Reference Specialist.

The British Library's current exhibition Shakespeare in Ten Acts is a landmark exhibition on the performances that made an icon, charting Shakespeare’s constant reinvention across the centuries and is open until Tuesday 6th September 2016.

To find out more about Shakespeare collections at the British Library join our reference team for a special tour where you can find out how to access and research Shakespeare related collections not on display in the exhibition. Tickets are available here.

Find out more about Shakespeare and psychology here

After Oedipus : Shakespeare in psychoanalysis, Julia Reinhard Lupton and Kenneth Reinhard. Ithaca/Cornell University Press, 1993. Shelfmark: 93/12357 DSC 

Elizabethan psychology and Shakespeare’s plays by Ruth Leila Anderson. Shelfmark: W42/6604 DSC  

The mad folk of Shakespeare, John Charles Bucknill, (1817-1897), Second edition, revised, 1867, Shelfmark 2300.c.3. 

The mind according to Shakespeare : psychoanalysis in the bard's writing, Marvin Bennett Krims. Shelfmark YC.2007.a.1806 and m06/.37542 DSC   

Psyche & symbol in Shakespeare, Alex Aronson. Bloomington. Shelfmark: 72/10648 DSC 

Psychoanalysis and ShakespeareNorman N. Holland. New York : Octagon Books, 1976, c1966. Shelfmark: 77/30526 DSC

The psychology of Shakespeare, by Bucknill, John Charles, 1970, Shelf mark X11/1303 DSC 

Shakespeare and psychoanalytic theory, Carolyn E. Brown, Shelfmark  YC.2015.a.10365

Shakespeare on the couch : on behalf of the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy  by Michael Jacobs. Shelfmark YC.2009.a.9109 

The Vale of Soulmaking: the post-Kleinian model of the mind, by Meg Harris Williams, shelf mark YC.2006.a.12437 and  m05/.26094 DSC   

20 April 2016

The Thinking Machine: W Ross Ashby and the Homeostat

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The British Library holds the personal archive of W. Ross Ashby - psychiatrist and expert in cybernetics (the study of the control of systems using technology). In this guest post Hallvard Haug, postdoctoral fellow at Birkbeck, University of London, examines the figure of W. Ross Ashby and his key invention the homeostat - a machine capable of adapting itself to the environment. A shorter article on W. Ross Ashby is featured on the British Library Untold Lives blog.

Ross Ashby (1903-1972) was a central figure of the post-war cybernetics movement in the UK, especially due to the popularity of his books Design for a Brain (1952) and  An Introduction to Cybernetics (1956). Ashby kept a thorough record of his thoughts throughout his adult life, and a collection of his papers has been donated to the British Library by his family.

Photograph of W Ross Ashby taken in his office 1963, Biological Computing Laboratory, University of Illinois. Copyright the Estate of W. Ross Ashby.

The centrepiece of the collection is Ashby’s notebooks which he kept from 1928 up until the year of his death. Among students of cybernetics these are legendary, and for good reason. Over the course of nearly 50 years, Ashby took meticulous stock of his thoughts on the material nature of the brain, and the notebooks show the workings of a highly systematic and deeply creative mind. Written in a precise hand, the journals brim with insights, speculations, calculations, graphs, drawings, newspaper clippings and circuit diagrams. Ashby also kept a meticulous topical record complete with content pages, cross referencing, summaries of entries, as well as two different sets of indexes — also included in the collection (Add MS 89153/27-30). Eventually, the notebooks ran to 7189 pages and spanned a total of 25 volumes.

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Journals 18-25 with handwritten labels including page numbers (Add MS 89153/18-25). Copyright the Estate of W. Ross Ashby.

At first, the notebooks were a pastime; eventually, however, the ideas Ashby explored became original enough to be publishable and in time these notes became the focus of his working life as his cybernetics work. The most famous of his innovations was the homeostat, a machine which demonstrated and embodied his theory of learning and adaptation in a mechanical apparatus which, entirely on its own, regains stability when perturbed. The development of the homeostat is documented thoroughly in the notebooks, from its first entry on 19 November 1946:

"I have been trying to develope [sic] further principles for my machine to illustrate stability, + to develope ultrastability" (Add MS 89153/9).

In the coming years, it was the centrepiece for his cybernetic activities.

The homeostat — a bulky and somewhat baroque machine built from military surplus parts — had a single purpose: to regain stability in response to perturbations in its environment. It is hard to convey precisely how the homeostat worked: set up as four identical units connected to each other via electrical inputs and outputs, each unit was topped with electrically conducing vanes dipped in water troughs. Like oscillographs, the vanes moved back and forth in the trough, reacting to the electrical input from their environment — the output from other blocks in the setup — and each block had an electrical output determined by the position of the vane in the trough. If the vane was directly in the middle of the trough, the electrical output was zero; if, however, it was positioned any other place in the trough, it provided electrical output to the other blocks, affecting the positions of the vanes it was connected to. Thus, when the machine was set in action by pushing a vane out of position, the vanes on all four units would react by moving back and forth, in reaction to their respective environments.

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Image of Ashby’s hand drawn diagram for the final version of the Homeostat from page 2432, Journal 11. (Add MS 89153/11). Copyright the Estate of W. Ross Ashby.

What made the homeostat so interesting, however, was its ability to return to equilibrium once a vane had been upset. Each of the units was constructed to also produce electric feedback to their respective vanes, depending on the conductivity of the vane. This feedback was determined according to a random table, and the machine would cycle through the table as long as the electrical output was not zero. Eventually, however, the vanes, cycling through random states, would come to a halt as each block found the appropriate feedback configuration. For Ashby, the return to equilibrium that the homeostat demonstrated was equivalent to the brain’s — whether human or animal — capacity for learning. The return to equilibrium demonstrated by the homeostat also showed how what only seems purposeful can come about by randomness, and Ashby believed this principle of feedback mechanisms spontaneously restoring equilibrium was a governing principle in nature. Indeed, in 1945 he noted that he had decided to follow in Darwin’s footsteps: like with the homeostat’s return to equilibrium, he viewed a species’ evolutionary adaptation to its environment as a return to equilibrium, and is only apparently purposeful. This tendency towards what Ashby called ‘ultrastability’ was referred to by Norbert Wiener as no less than ‘one of the great philosophical contributions of the present day.’ Eventually, Ashby was invited to present it at the ninth Macy conference for cybernetics in 1952.

Image of the Homeostat taken from Ashby’s lecture slides. (Add MS 89152/40). Copyright the Estate of W. Ross Ashby.

The influence cybernetics exerted on both the sciences and humanities in the 1950s and ’60s was considerable: its central insights touched upon, transformed and occasionally dominated disciplines ranging from computer science, artificial intelligence and genetics through psychology and sociology, and also influenced intellectual movements such as structuralism. Its universal character gained it great popular appeal, but also meant cybernetics never had a comfortable institutional or disciplinary home, with only a few university departments dedicated to it. Despite its popular appeal, Ashby has remained something of an obscure figure. The autobiographical notebook ‘Passing through nature…’ gives a rare insight into his private thoughts, and suggests that it was at least partly due to Ashby’s reticence towards being in the public eye:

"My fear is now that that [sic] I may become conspicuous for a book of mine is in the press. For this sort of success I have no liking. My ambitions are vaguer.

   I am something of an artist, not with pencil or paint, for I have no skill there, but with a deep appreciation of the perfect. […] I have an ambition some day to produce something faultless." (Add MS 89153/33)

Against his inclinations, Ashby set out to spark public interest in his ideas in the 1940s, and for a brief period the homeostat was the topic both of popular magazines and radio shows, promoted as an ‘artificial brain.’ Ashby kept a record of his success, pasting newspaper clippings in the notebooks. The journals are a treasure trove for insight into the trajectory of ideas: from the premature attempts at precisely stating a problem, to the mature implementation, years later, of a successful theory and its subsequent dissemination.

Hallvard Haug is a Wellcome ISSF postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Medical Humanities at Birkbeck, University of London. His interest in W. Ross Ashby stems from his PhD research on the history of human enhancement technologies, which included a section on cybernetics.

Further reading:

The British Library acquired the W. Ross Ashby archive in 2003. It consists of notebooks, correspondence, notes, index cards, slides and offprints and is available to researchers through the British Library Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue at Add MS 89153. The estate of W. Ross Ashby also maintains a website The W. Ross Ashby Digital Archive which contains digitised copies of much of this material as well as a biography and photographs. It can be found at

Andrew Pickering, The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches for Another Future (Chicago: 2010).

Norbert Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings, 2nd ed. (London: 1989).

15 March 2016

Tunny and Colossus: Donald Michie and Bletchley Park

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In honour of British Science Week Jonathan Pledge explores the work of Donald Michie, a code-breaker at Bletchley Park from 1942 to 1945. The Donald Michie papers are held at the British Library.

Donald Michie (1923-2007) was a scientist who made key contributions in the fields of cryptography, mammalian genetics and artificial intelligence (AI).

Copy of a photograph of Donald Michie taken while he was at Bletchley Park (Add MS 89072/1/5). Copyright the estate of Donald Michie/Crown Copyright.

In 1942, Michie began working at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire as a code-breaker under Max H. A. Newman. His role was to decrypt the German Lorenz teleprinter cypher - codenamed ‘Tunny’.

The Tunny machine was attached to a teleprinter and encoded messages via a system of two sets of five rotating wheels, named ‘psi’ and ‘chi’, by the code-breakers. The starting position of the wheels, known as a wheel pattern, was decided by a predetermined code before the operator entered the message. The encryption worked by generating an additional letter, derived from the addition of each letter generated by the psi and chi wheels to each letter of the unencrypted message entered by the operator. The addition worked by using a simple rule represented here as dots and crosses:

• + • = •

x + x = •

• + x = x

x + • = x

Therefore using these rules, M in the teleprinter alphabet, represented as:  • • x x x, added to N: • • x x •, gives • • • • x, the letter T.

Detail of the Lorenz machine showing the encoding wheels. Creative Commons Licence.

In order for messages to be decrypted it was initially necessary to know the position of the encoding wheels before the message was sent. These were initially established by the use of ‘depths’. A depth occurred when the Tunny operator mistakenly repeated the same message with subtle textual differences without first resetting the encoding wheels.

A depth was first intercepted on 30 August 1941 and the encoding text was deciphered by John Tiltman. From this the working details of Tunny were established by the mathematician William Tutte without his ever having seen the machine itself; an astonishing feat. Using Tutte’s deduction the mathematician Alan Turing came up with a system for devising the wheel patterns; known as ‘Turingery’.

Turing, known today for his role in breaking the German navy’s ‘Enigma ‘code, was at the time best known for his 1936 paper ‘On Computable Numbers’ in which he had theorised about a ‘Universal Turing Machine’ which today we would recognise as a computer. Turing’s ideas on ‘intelligent machines’, along with his friendship, were to have a lasting effect on Michie and his future career in AI and robotics. 

Between July and October 1942, all German Tunny messages were decrypted by hand. However changes to the way the cypher was generated meant that finding the wheel setting by hand was no longer feasible. It was again William Tutte who came up with a statistical method for finding the wheels settings and it was the mathematician Max Newman who suggested using a machine for processing the data.

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Colossus computer [c 1944]. By the end of the War there were ten such machines at Bletchley. Crown Copyright.

Initially an electronic counter dubbed ‘Heath Robinson’ was used for data processing. However it was not until the engineer Thomas Flowers, designed and built Colossus, the world’s first large scale electronic computer, that wheel patterns and therefore the messages could be decrypted at speed. Michie too, along with Jack Good, played a part, discovering a way of using Colossus to dramatically reduce the processing time for ciphered texts.

The decrypting of Tunny messages was critical in providing the Allies with information on high level German military planning in particular for the Battle of Kursk in 1943 and surrounding preparations for the D-Day invasion of 1944

One of the great ironies is that much of this pioneering and critical work remained a state secret until 1996. It was only through Donald Michie’s tireless campaigning that the General Report on Tunny, written in 1945 by Michie, Jack Good and Geoffrey Timmins, was finally declassified by the British Government; providing proof of the code-breakers collective achievements during the War. 

Pages from Donald Michie’s copy of the General Report on Tunny. (Add MS 89072/1/6). Crown Copyright.

 Donald Michie at the British Library

The Donald Michie Papers at the British Library comprises of three separate tranches of material gifted to the library in 2004 and 2007. They consist of correspondence, notes, notebooks, offprints and photographs and are available to researchers through the British Library’s Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue at Add MS 88958, Add MS 88975 and Add MS 89072.


Jonathan Pledge: Curator of Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts, Public and Political Life

Read more about ciphers in the British Library's collections on Untold Lives