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18 May 2017

Local heroes: Sir Henry Bessemer - Islington and St Pancras inventor

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Bessemer spy
Sir Henry Bessemer, caricature by "Spy" (Leslie Ward)

On Tuesday evening Philip attended an event at City, University of London, for the unveiling of a blue plaque to the inventor and entrepreneur Sir Henry Bessemer. Bessemer lived for some time in a house at Northampton Square in Islington, in a block that was demolished after World War II for the construction of the university’s current main entrance building. When the main entrance was reconstructed recently, archaeological investigation confirmed that Bessemer’s home had been directly on its site. After the plaque unveiling, Dr. Susan Mossman from the Science Museum delivered a lecture on Bessemer’s life, from which much of the information in this post comes.

Bessemer is best known for his revolutionary process for steel manufacture, by blowing air through molten pig iron in an egg-shaped converter, to oxidise away most of the carbon in the pig iron. This left steel with the correct proportion of carbon to make it a useful metal. The process was covered by several British patents in 1855-6, but especially GB2321/1855 and GB2768/1855. These patents are not online, but you can see digital copies of them if you come to our reading rooms.

Bessemer preferred to licence his patent rather than build an ironworks himself, but many early licensees failed, and the process was considered a flop until he constructed an ironworks in Baxter Road in Saint Pancras, close to where the British Library is now, and began selling steel at far lower prices than anyone else could manage. It turned out that the process as Bessemer first conceived it was not suitable for iron containing high levels of phosphorus impurities, which was true for metal from ore mined in Northern England. One answer was to oxidise away the contaminants, which also destroyed the carbon already in the pig iron, and then add new carbon and manganese. This process was developed by Robert Forester Mushet, whose business failed but whose process Bessemer took over once Mushet’s patent expired. Bessemer was finally, reportedly shamed by Mushet’s daughter, persuaded to give Mushet a pension. The second answer was the Gilchrist-Thomas process, which lined the converter with alkaline stone, causing the acidic phosphorus compounds in the iron to form compounds that precipitated out of the steel and into the slag. With these further refinements Bessemer’s process became licenced worldwide, making Bessemer hugely rich, and did not become completely obsolete until the late twentieth century.

Bessemer Kelham
Bessemer Converter at Kelham Island Museum, Sheffield

Bessemer had already come up with many other inventions before his steel process, and would continue to do so afterwards. The most lucrative was his first real success, before steel, a method for making bronze powder for metallic paints on an industrial scale, hugely reducing the cost of a product which had previously been made by hand-grinding by craftworkers in Germany. Bessemer kept the process secret for decades, by ensuring that the machines were kept in four sealed rooms with strictly limited access, and that few people other than himself knew more than one of the four stages of the process. This helped him keep a monopoly much longer than the fourteen years he would have had if he’d patented the process. Bessemer was a shrewd businessman who would only continue working in a field as long as it made money. Once competitors had caught up with him he would move on to something else.

Another of Bessemer’s claims to fame was his early investment in “Parkesine”, the first commercialised artificial plastic, a form of celluloid. The business was a failure due to initial low quality, but remains historically important. At the time of his death, Bessemer was having what would have been the world’s second largest telescope constructed at his estate in Denmark Hill, but it was abandoned when he passed away.

Bessemer tomb
Bessemer's tombstone in West Norwood Cemetery (photograph by Robert Mason, CC0 licence)

Bessemer remains an inspiring figure for modern British inventors, but the story of his steel process also demonstrates some important lessons that dispel some of the romantic ideas of the inventor. Firstly, always be open to taking on the ideas of others instead of believing your own ideas to be perfect and unimprovable. Second, you may well have to start your own business instead of assuming that other people will be falling over themselves to licence your idea. Third, always think about whether an invention will make money, as well as its abstract beauty. And fourth, it helps to have plenty of money to invest before you start!

Further reading:

Patents by Henry Bessemer, in the Business & IP Reading Room at St Pancras.

An earlier blog post by Dr. Mossman on Bessemer’s life.

Bessemer, H and Bessemer, H Jr. Sir Henry Bessemer, FRS: an autobiography. London: Engineering, 1905. Available for order to our Reading Rooms at 10825.k.7 or Wq3/9544.

Bodsworth, C (Ed.). Sir Henry Bessemer: father of the steel industry. London: Institute of Materials, 1998. Available for order to our Reading Rooms at YK.1998.b.6654 or 2247.795000 690.

05 May 2017

The first British-made satellite was launched fifty years ago today

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Scout rocket
A NASA Scout rocket of the type used to launch Ariel 3. Used under the NASA copyright policy.

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the launch of Ariel 3, the first satellite to be designed and constructed in the UK. The two previous Ariel satellites had been designed in Britain but constructed by NASA. It was launched by NASA in the USA on 5th May 1967, carrying five scientific experiments in the fields of astronomy and atmospheric studies. It was shut down in September 1969 and re-entered Earth’s atmosphere on 14th December 1970.


The international collaboration took place under COSPAR, the Committee on Space Research. Its experiments were:

An investigation of the electron density and temperature in the ionosphere (the portion of the upper atmosphere where air molecules are ionised by solar radiation) using a Langmuir probe, and a second experiment using a parallel-plate capacitor, both led by Professor James Sayers of the University of Birmingham.

A mapping of large-scape radio noise sources in the Milky Way, led by Professor F Graham Smith of the University of Cambridge.

Measuring the concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere at heights of 150-300 km, led by Dr. Kenneth H Stewart of the Meteorological Office.

Measuring radio emissions from thunderstorms and other natural terrestrial sources at six key frequencies, led by John A Murphy of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.

A worldwide survey of VLF radio signals, and an investigation of the effects of the propagation path on a 16kHz ground-based radio transmitter, led by Professor Thomas R Kaiser of the University of Sheffield.

For more information on the satellite, see the NASA catalog entry on it. Contemporary descriptions of the satellite and the results of the experiments were contained in two special journal issues:

Radio and Electronic Engineer, 1968, 35 (1). British Library shelfmark STM (P) RT 40-E(7) and DSC 7229.400000, also available online in our Reading Rooms through our subscription to IEEE Xplore.

Proceedings of the Royal Society, 1969, 311 (1507). British Library shelfmark (P) JA 00-E(12), also available online in our Reading Rooms through JSTOR.

17 March 2017

Old issues in new guises: Dame Anne McLaren and the embryo research debate

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Following the birth of the world’s first baby by In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF), Louise Brown, in 1978, the research on human embryos that had made this possible became the subject of scrutiny and unease from both the public and politicians. This led the government to task Dame Mary Warnock with the chairing of a committee consisting of medics, social workers, lawyers and clerics in 1982, to set out a guideline for the legislation on IVF and embryo research in the UK. The report was enacted in the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. One of the report’s most lasting and controversial recommendations was a limit on research on human embryos in vitro beyond fourteen-days – the so-called ’fourteen-day rule’.

Detail of the letter to Anne McLaren inviting her to take part in the Warnock Committee. (1982). (Add MS 89202/8/1). Crown Copyright/estate of Anne McLaren.

This law has been in force for more than twenty-five years. For scientists, there had been no need to contest it, since scientists had not come close to culturing an embryo anywhere near to the fourteen-day limit. The equilibrium was only disrupted at the end of last year, when a research group at Cambridge University led by Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz claimed to have developed a method of culturing live human embryos for thirteen days, only stopping their experiment at this point to comply with the fourteen-day rule. This possibility has recharged the debates over the desirability of embryo research and the extent to which it should be regulated.

In the face of these reopened debates on the ethics of embryo research, it is important to understand the premises and arguments that shaped the current legislation. These arguments, at first glance, appear to be predominantly scientific.

Developmental biologist Dame Anne McLaren (1927-2007) was the only research scientist serving on the Warnock Committee, and played an important role in providing the lay-committee with a scientific understanding of the processes of embryo development that proved definitive in the committee’s efforts to convince ministers of the validity of the fourteen-day rule. McLaren made the case for the rule by arguing that the fourteenth day was a clearly distinguishable step towards individuation in the development of the embryo. Fourteen days, for example, sees the onset of gastrulation, a point at which the embryo can no longer divide into identical twins. Fourteen days also falls well before the beginnings of what will become the central nervous system, and so there is no chance that the embryo could experience pain. 

Title page of Anne McLaren’s draft for ‘Comments on the use of donated eggs fertlilized specifically for research purposes’. (c. 1982). (Add MS 89202/8/1) Copyright the estate of Anne McLaren.

Yet, as Lady Warnock has stressed, fourteen days is by no means a landmark set in stone. McLaren could have made a well-substantiated scientific argument for a different cut-off point- the embryo, for example, is just as incapable of experiencing pain at twenty-eight days. As Lady Warnock stated at a 2016 Progress Educational Trust conference on the topic, it was merely important to set a time limit, to provide clarity through law, so that the public would feel reassured that research would not progress untethered. The fourteen-day rule did therefore not express a moral distinction for the human embryo based on biological facts, but emphasised a specific part of the biological process in order to make a practical compromise – as Warnock writes in the committee’s report: ‘What is legally permissible may be thought of as the minimum requirement for a tolerable society’ (1985, p.3). 

Understanding the arguments McLaren made in the 1980s will shed light on what is required of legislation today—that it should take into account the current political climate and public sentiment, perhaps before making arguments about the ethics of research based on biological facts. 

The Anne McLaren papers at the British Library consist of letters, notes, notebooks and offprints. There is currently one tranche (Add MS 83830-83981) available to readers through the British Library Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue with a second tranche (Add MS 89202) planned for release at the end of April 2017. Additionally one of Anne McLaren’s notebooks containing material from 1953 to 1956 (Add MS 83843) is on long-term display in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery. 

Anne McLaren’s scientific publications and books, along with an oral history interview conducted in February 2007, are available to readers via the British Library Explore catalogue.

 This post forms part of a series on our Science blog highlighting some of the British Library’s science collections as part of British Science Week 2017.

Posted by Marieke Bigg. Marieke is an MPhil student in sociology at the University of Cambridge and works under the supervision of Prof. Sarah Franklin. Marieke’s MPhil dissertation and PhD will both explore the contributions made by Dr Anne McLaren to the debate over human fertilisation and embryology in the 1980s.

15 March 2017

Local Heroes: John Maynard Smith: (1920-2004): A good "puzzle-solver" with an "accidental career"

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John Maynard Smith c:1965. Copyright University of Sussex

Maynard Smith was born in London, though after his father’s death in 1928, the family moved to the countryside. There, Maynard Smith deepened his love for natural history – already manifest in his insistence to repeatedly visit the Zoo and Natural History Museum in London – while bird-watching and beetle-collecting during the holidays in Exmoor. His family was generally not scientifically inclined, and there were expectations for him to join his grandfather’s stockbroking firm. However, during one Sunday lunch he declared that he would not do so. What was he going to do then? Remembering a lecture on the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, he decided, rather spontaneously, to become an engineer. And so, after graduating from Eton in 1938, he went on to read engineering at Cambridge.

Maynard Smith is known for not having liked his time at boarding school very much – the atmosphere, he felt, was ‘really anti-intellectual’, ‘snobbish’ and ‘arrogant’ – but he credited Eton with teaching him mathematics and giving him the freedom to explore the natural sciences on his own, mostly by reading popular science books. Cambridge, in a way, did less for him academically than Eton. ‘This time, however, the fault was partly mine and partly Hitler’s. It was hard, in 1938, to take either academic work, or one’s own future, seriously.’ He joined the Communist Party, influenced by a visit of Nazi Germany in the summer of 1938 from which he returned ‘in a state of complete confusion, convinced that my pacifism was wrong’. Communists were those ‘saying we have got to unite and oppose Fascism’, and he spent more time being politically active than studying. Soon after joining, Maynard Smith met Sheila Matthew, his future wife, at a Communist Camp. They were to marry in 1941, making Maynard Smith one of the first married undergraduate students at Trinity College. Their first son, Anthony, would be born in 1944, their daughter Carol in 1946, and their youngest, Julian, in 1949.

In 1941, Maynard Smith graduated with a second-class honours degree in mechanical engineering. After graduation, he worked as an aircraft stressman which, importantly, ‘taught him to trust models, a lesson that would become fundamental in his work as a scientist.’ Moreover, ‘and for obvious reasons, Maynard Smith formed the valuable habit of not making mistakes in computations.’ However, when the war was over, he began to reconsider his career choices. He decided to return to his first love and started a second degree in zoology at University College London. Maynard Smith knew JBS Haldane was teaching there, whose work he had sought out already at Eton because several teachers seemed to particularly hate this man – so he couldn’t be ‘all bad’.

During his years as an undergraduate at UCL Maynard Smith became less and less active politically. He was much more involved in his studies than he ever was at Cambridge. In addition, Lysenkoism reached its peak in 1948. Trofim Lysenko was a Soviet biologist and Lamarckist supported by the Soviet government. Maynard Smith was not so much averse to Lysenkoism as ‘disgusted’ by the comrades who were ignorant of genetics but who were nonetheless telling him what to believe. He lost faith in the Communist Party, became disillusioned with communist politics and – though to a lesser extent – with Marxist philosophy. In 1956, after the Soviet Invasion of Hungary, he finally left the Party yet retained his leftist political outlook.

John Maynard Smith c:1984. Copyright University of Sussex

In the year before his death, Animal Signals, his last book, co-written with David Harper, was published. The book was one of several; Maynard Smith published both textbooks and popular science – his ‘little Penguin’, The Theory of Evolution, was published as early as 1958. Indeed, he was convinced that science is a social activity: he had a ‘desire to embed discoveries in the discourse of a community as broad as possible.’ So next to writing books, reviews, and essays he also appeared on both radio and television.

The John Maynard Smith Archive at the British Library documents over half a century of John Maynard Smith's work as an evolutionary biologist, covering the years 1948 to 2004 (with an emphasis on the 1970s to 1990s). It contains letters, notes, computer printouts, draft manuscripts, lecture notes and offprints as well as artefacts and digital files. The archive is available to readers through the British Library Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue (Add MS 86569-86840), excepting the digital material which is in the process of being catalogued.

Maynard Smith's books and scientific papers, along with two interviews (one on camera), can be found via the British Library Explore catalogue.

This post forms part of a series on our Science and Untold Lives blogs highlighting some of the British Library’s science collections as part of British Science Week 2017.


Sources and Further Reading:

Charlesworth, B. and Harvey, P. (2005). John Maynard Smith. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 51, 254-265.

Kohn, M. (2004). A Reason for Everything: Natural Selection and the English Imagination. London: Faber and Faber, esp. pp.197-255.

‘Making it formal.’ (1988). In: Wolpert, L. and Richards, A. (eds.). A Passion for Science (pp.122-137). Oxford [etc.]: Oxford University Press.

Maynard Smith, J. (1985). In Haldane's Footsteps. In: Dewsbury, D.A. (ed.). Leaders in the Study of Animal Behavior: Autobiographical Perspectives (pp.347-354). Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press.

Posted by Helen Piel. Helen Piel is a PhD student at the University of Leeds and the British Library. She is part of the AHRC's Collaborative Doctoral Partnership scheme and working on the John Maynard Smith Archive, exploring the working life of a British evolutionary biologist in the post-war period.

01 March 2017

The 100 most reported and shared science articles of 2016

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Wright_of_Derby,_The_Orrery compressed
"A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery" by Joseph Wright of Derby. Since the 18th century, astronomy has remained popular among non-scientists. have recently published the list of the top 100 scholarly articles most mentioned in news and social media in 2016.  The subjects can be roughly assigned as:

Health and medicine     63
Biology   15
Environment 7
Astronomy 6
Computer science 2
Psychology 2
Scholarly publishing 2
Archaeology 1
Engineering 1
Statistics 1

Predictably, health and medicine articles were most of interest to the non-scholarly media, and social media, with many articles relating to high-profile issues such as obesity and the emergence of the Zika virus, or which could be considered to inspire "might someday lead to a cure for [condition]" stories. Environmental stories were unexpectedly low on the list. Two articles seemingly owed their popularity to a celebrity effect - President Obama's article on the Affordable Care Act, and an essay by the wife of the actor and comedian Robin Williams on the neurological problems that contributed to his suicide. Biology stories were dominated by ones on the always popular topic of prehistoric life, especially life that could be represented as particularly relevant to human ancestry. 

However, a few articles hit the headlines after arousing interest specifically within the scientific community, notably the American Statistical Association's statement stepping into the "p-value" debate about the reliability and meaningfulness of statistical significance testing in science, and the announcement of the long-awaited conclusive detection of gravitational waves. Two stories about the scientific publishing process itself got into the top 100 - the New England Journal of Medicine's controversial "research parasite" editorial on data sharing and a BMJ satirical piece on the perennial battle between authors and peer reviewers. 

So, what does this mean to us as scientific librarians? Most clearly, that at the extremes altmetrics are clearly dominated by what the general public is interested in rather than necessarily what is most important to the development of science. While we are always looking for new information to help us decide what to acquire, this list probably will not affect our purchasing much!

Posted by Philip Eagle - STM Content Expert

03 February 2017

HPC & Big Data

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Matt and Philip attended the HPC & Big Data conference on Wednesday 1st February. This is an annual one-day conference on the uses of high-performance computing and especially on big data. “Big data” is used widely to mean very large collections of data in science, social science, and business.

There were some very interesting presentations over the day. Anthony Lee from our friends the Turing Institute discussed the Institute’s plans for the future and the potential of big data in general. The increasing amounts of data being created in “big science” scientific experiments and the world at large mean that the problems of research have shifted from data collection being the hard part to processing capabilities being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of data.

A presentation from the Earlham Institute and Verne Global revealed that Iceland could become a centre for high-performance computing in the future, thanks to its combination of cheap, green electricity from hydroelectric and geothermal power, high-bandwidth data links to other continents, and a cool climate which reduces the need for active cooling of equipment. HPC worldwide now consumes more energy than the entire airline industry and whole countries of the size and development level of Italy and Spain. Seljalandsfoss-1207956_1280

Dave Underwood of the Met Office described the Met Office’s acquisition of the largest HPC computer in Europe. He also pointed out the extreme male-biased demographic of the event, something that both Matt and Philip had noticed (although we admit, one of our female team members could have gone instead of Philip).

Luciano Floridi of Oxford University discussed the ethical issues of Big Data and pointed out that as intangibles become a greater portion of companies’ value, so scandal becomes more damaging to them. Current controversies involving behaviour on the internet suggest that moral principles of security, privacy, and freedom of speech may be increasingly conflicting with one another, leading to difficult questions of how to balance them.

JISC gave a presentation on their actual and planned shared HPC data centres, and invited representatives from our friends and neighbours at the Crick Institute, and the Wellcome Trust’s Sanger Institute on their IT plans. Alison Davis from Crick pointed out that an under-rated problem for academic IT departments is individual researchers’ desire to carry huge quantities of digital data with them when they move institutions, causing extra demand on storage and raising difficult issues of ownership.

Finally, Richard Self of the University of Derby gave an illuminating presentation on the potential pitfalls of “big data” in social science and business, such as the fact that the size of a sample does not guarantee that it is representative of the whole population, the probability of finding apparent correlations in a large sample that are created by chance and not causation, and the lack of guaranteed veracity. (For example, in one investigation 14% of geographical locations from mobile phone data were 65km or more out of place.)

Philip Eagle, Content Expert - STM

13 January 2017

Making hydrogen from wax

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Philip recently attended an event for other Oxford University chemistry alumni, and one of the speakers drew attention to a recent publication from, among others, Oxford chemists, regarding the production of hydrogen from paraffin waxes by microwave degradation using a ruthenium catalyst.

Hydrogen has often been suggested as an environmentally-friendly replacement energy source for fossil fuels in transport vehicles and other applications requiring high energy density. (Note that hydrogen is not a “fuel”, as it must be made using energy from other sources, which can be environmentally-friendly or not.) However, there are significant problems with this, notably involving the safe storage of a highly-inflammable and explosive gas which is much lighter than air.

Hydrogen wax cycle
Figure 5 from original article showing chemical cycle and outputs

This publication suggests that wax could be carried on vehicles and used to create hydrogen gas in situ, the waste carbon being used to make more wax via syngas production and the Fischer-Tropsch process, where carbon monoxide and hydrogen is converted into hydrocarbons as a potential source of petro-chemicals that does not involve releasing fossil carbon into the atmosphere. While this publication is still a long way from a working industrial-scale process, it offers a very hopeful potential avenue for less-polluting technology.

Source: Gonzalez-Cortes, S et al. Wax: A benign hydrogen-storage material that rapidly releases H2-rich gases through microwave-assisted catalytic decomposition, Scientific Reports, 2016 6, 35315. Available online at

Further reading:
Ball, M et al (Eds.). Compendium of hydrogen energy: volume 4, Hydrogen use, safety and the hydrogen economy, Oxford: Woodhead Publishing, 2015. Available online in the British Library Reading Rooms.

19 December 2016

The first paper on carbon dioxide and global warming

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Before 2016 ends, there’s one anniversary we previously didn’t get around to marking, the publication in 1896 of the first articles suggesting that carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere might affect Earth’s climate via the greenhouse effect, by the Swedish chemist and physicist Svante Arrhenius. This phenomenon is almost universally accepted as a hazard to the future of human civilisation by climate scientists, although still denied by certain political figures.

Svante Arrhenius in 1910

Arrhenius (1859-1927) was one of the main early figures of physical chemistry, the branch of chemistry that uses physics to explain and predict the behaviour of chemical reactions, mixtures of matter and volumes of pure substances. He won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1903, for coming up with the idea that many substances, such as salt, exist as charged ions when they dissolve in water, explaining why solutions conduct electricity. His other important achievements in chemistry include work on the rates of chemical reactions and developing the first clear definition of acids and bases.

Later in his career, he became interested in the discipline then known as “cosmic physics”, which sought to explain the current nature and past history of the Earth and other planets of the solar system. The greenhouse effect paper developed out of his attempts to develop an explanation for ice ages on Earth, which he suggested were caused by changes in the CO2 level of the atmosphere. (This remains one of several competing hypotheses today, although there is argument about whether changes in atmosphere composition were a cause, an effect, or part of a feedback loop.)

He first published his ideas in 1896, in German in the Swedish journal Behang till Kongliga Vetenskaps-Akademiens Handlingar and in an abridged English version in The London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science. He subsequently expanded on his theory for a mass audience in his popular science work Världarnas utveckling, published in English as Worlds in the Making.

According to Arrhenius, he spent a full year in tedious manual calculations for the paper, in various stages. Firstly, he sought to derive figures for the heat-absorption capacity of water vapour and carbon dioxide from detailed observations on the intensity of moonlight at Earth’s surface carried out by Samuel P Langley in 1885-7. He then calculated mean actual temperatures and humidities at different locations around the world, and then the calculated effects on temperatures in different parts of the world of carbon dioxide levels at 67%, 150%, 200%, 250%, and 300% of the actual one at the time he wrote. He calculated that doubling the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere would raise the temperature in general by 4°C.

In the paper he did not discuss the effect of fossil fuel burning on carbon dioxide emissions. However, he did in Worlds in the Making. On pp.53-63, he discussed the role in carbon dioxide emissions of human activity and volcanism, and declared the chief means of long-term removal of carbon dioxide as formation of carbonate minerals and peat production by plants, before moving on to speculation on the early history of Earth’s atmosphere. At the end of the chapter, he argues that an increased greenhouse effect due to human activity would be a good thing, preventing a new Ice Age and allowing for better yields of crops! At the time, Arrhenius did not consider the risks of rising sea level and local disruption of agriculture, to mention only two potential downsides.

Posted by Philip Eagle, STM Content Expert

Sources and further reading:



Arrhenius, S. Ueber den Einfluss des atmosphärischen Kohlensäuregehalts auf die Temperatur der Erdoberfläche, Behang till Kongliga Vetenskaps-Akademiens Handlingar, 1896 22 (1,1), 1-102. General Reference Ac.1070

Arrhenius, S. On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground, The London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science (Fifth Series) April 1896 49 (251), 237-276. General Reference P.P.1433. Also available online at

Arrhenius, S, translated by Borns, H. Worlds in the Making. London: Harper & Brothers, 1908. General Reference

Brock, W H. The Fontana History of Chemistry. London: Fontana, 1992. General Reference YC.1992.a.2866

Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, Document Supply 2388.000000

Chen, W-Y et al (Ed.). Handbook of Climate Change Mitigation. New York: Springer, 2012. Science, Technology and Business (B) 363.738747

Earth System Science Data, available online at

Earth’s Future, available online at

Graham, S. On the Shoulders of Giants. Greenbelt, MD: NASA Earth Observatory, 2000. Available online at

Hudson, J. The History of Chemistry. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1992. General Reference YC.1993.b.3347

Journal of Advances in Modeling World Systems, available online at

McGuffie, K and Henderson-Sellers, A. The Climate Modelling Primer. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014. Science, Technology and Business (B) 551.6011

Matthews, J A (Ed.). Encyclopedia of Environmental Change. Los Angeles: SAGE Reference, 2014. Science, Technology and Business (B) 363.703

Mélieres, M-A and Maréchal, C. Climate Change: Past, Present and Future. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015. Science, Technology and Business (B) 551.6

Nature Climate Change, Science, Technology and Business (P) 333.7205-E(2)

North, G R et al (Ed.) Encyclopedia of Atmospheric Sciences. Amsterdam: Elsevier/Academic Press, 2015. Science, Technology and Business (B) 551.503

Philander, S G (Ed.). Encyclopedia of Global Warming and Climate Change. Thousand Oaks, Calif: SAGE Reference, 2012. Available electronically in British Library reading rooms

Rodhe, H and Charlson, R (Eds.). The Legacy of Svante Arrhenius: Understanding the Greenhouse Effect. Uddevalla: Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, 1998. General Reference YA.2000.a.37529

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

12 December 2016

Using our science collections

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Some of you reading this blog may never have come to the British Library Science rooms, or only have used a small part of our services. Here’s an example, based on real queries from our reading rooms, of what you can do when you come here.

Emma is a medical student who has been asked to do a report over the vacation on anticonvulsive drugs. She has some online access to her university’s resources from home, but needs a quieter place to work. After getting her reader pass, she asks the science reference desk for the best place to start. She searches Explore the British Library, which is the main catalogue of books and journals in the library, using the search box on the library computer home page, for books on anticonvulsants. She finds several paper books on the open shelf, in particular “Anti-Epileptic Drugs: a Clinician’s Manual” by Ali A Asadi-Pooya at (B) 615.784, and “Wyllie’s Treatment of Epilepsy”, edited by Elaine Wyllie at (B) 616.85306. Also available is an e-book, “The Treatment of Epilepsy”, edited by Simon Shorvon. 

CC-BY by e-Magine art (

After browsing these she moves on to our electronic databases, which are all available from the “Find Electronic Resources” link on the library computer home page. She discovers our subscription to “Drug Information Fulltext” via Ovid, which includes the full text of the American Hospital Formulary Service’s Drug Information Book, giving detailed information on individual substances.

Ovid search results

In order to comment on recent developments in research, she uses the Embase database, a medical database specialising in pharmaceutical material. The database retrieves 155 results for 2016, which is a number possible to browse by title, but allows it to be narrowed by the type of subject matter of the article, such as whether it focusses on “therapy” or “diagnosis”.

Embase results
Embase search results

If she is interested in a specific drug, she can search for that by name on Embase. Another way to find recent articles on a specific substance is to find the main reference on it in one of the book sources, and then find it on the Web of Science database and look for articles citing it. For example, a major article on the use of the drug vigabatrin for complex partial seizures was Cocito et al, “Vigabatrin in partial seizures – a long-term study”, Epilepsy Research 1989, 3(2), pp. 160-6. Web of Science finds fifty later citations, up to 2014.

This was a taste of the different scientific resources that you can use here. We are open to all scientific researchers who have a need to use our resources, and if you know of something you can’t find at your university or workplace, we may well have it here. If you want to check first, send us a question.

Philip Eagle, STM Content Specialist