THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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5 posts categorized "Science"

24 December 2018

A Bioluminescent Christmas

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Christmas is associated with sparkling lights that lift the eyes up to the stars in motionless awe. On Christmas 1875, a curious traveller wrote about a less-known yet equally magical light that drew his eyes below the horizon, a light that flared up with the breaking waves: sea sparkle.

Sea_sparkles_(11538049406)
Sea sparkle (Photo by Sander van der Wel from Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 2.0])

The traveller, count József Zichy, a politician of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, was on a semi-official Asian tour to expand trade and political relations, and to learn about the world through personal experience, a practice not uncommon among members of the aristocracy.

Zichy Titlepage
Title page of József Zichy’s manuscript diary: “From 1875 November 22 to 1876 September 22 | Diary of my travels in Asia | original manuscript: I.-XVII. notebooks ‘Nulla dies sine linea’” Reproduced in Zichy József, Zichy Mihály (ed), Gróf Zichy József utazásai, Volume 1 Ázsia 1875-76 (Budapest, 2013) YF.2014.6057

Zichy Map
Map of Zichy’s travel in Asia in 1875-1876, from Gróf Zichy József utazásai

En route from Aden, Yemen to Pointe de Galle, Sri Lanka, in the Arabian Sea, , Zichy described his encounter with sea sparkle in a few words but with great precision:

December 22. Lat. 12.16 - long. 46.20
We are on open sea again […]. […] - In the evening we can’t help but staring at the sea’s phosphorescence, which is much stronger here than anywhere else. We are leaving behind a pretty fiery trail and gazillions of sparks are scattered when the waves brake on the side of our huge ship’s hull. - The weather is splendid, a mild breeze makes the heat more tolerable than it was in the Red Sea.

December 26. Lat. 9o12’, long. 63 o55’
[…] The evenings are not so beautiful any longer because the sea’s phosphorescence is much weaker here than it was in the Gulf of Aden; the weather remains good.
[Translation: Andrea Deri]

What Zichy observed was bioluminescence, generated by high concentration of tiny planktonic organisms, probably Dinoflagellates (δίνη, Greek, refers to whirling, swirling; flagellates, Latin, refers to the flagellum or flagella on the surface of the algae). However, a wide range of species of several taxonomic groups may bring about similar phenomena.

The cold glowing white-blue light of sea sparkle is the result of biochemical reactions within marine organisms. The light flares up with wave action that may be produced by walking, swimming or vessel movement. The light is assumed to deter the Dinoflagellates’ predators or act as a ‘burglar alarm’, which may attract secondary predators to prey on the primary ones.

Sea sparkle can occur in coastal and shallow waters of tropical and temperate seas. Current blog posts and daily newspapers document sea sparkle from India’s western coast to Anglesey

Mariners have known bioluminescence for long time. Fishers and traditional navigators of South India’s Malabar coasts and around Bombay ‘have reported a luminous sea surface and at times a milky sea invariably during dark nights following calm or sultry weather and during overcast monsoon periods’ and glowing sea surface like fireflies in Bengal.

Bioluminescence is now even used as a tourist attraction to small islands off the south Indian coast. While Zichy mentioned some of them, Lakshadweep and the Maldives, the distance from the atolls and the time of the night did not allow him to record any further observations:

December 27. Lat. 8o 15’, long. 68o 34’
[…]Tonight we are going to pass between the Lakedires and the Maldives. To see these islands we will barely do because their shores are rather low. […]
[Translation: Andrea Deri]

Zichy did not have the public in mind when he wrote his diary. Yet, its publication by the Hungarian National Széchenyi Library and the publisher Széphalom with the editorial scholarship of Mihály Zichy, a member of the same family, adds great value to history, linguistics, anthropology, arts and sciences.

József Zichy’s entries also demonstrate the significance of personal diaries in environmental change research, especially when the traveller’s environmental and cultural observations include metadata such as longitude and latitude coordinates. Mapping Zichy’s observations shows that he was able to observe sea sparkles in deep sea also: an occurrence that may be of interest of current long-term and large-scale studies.

Zichy map positions

Zichy map positions 2
Map of Zichy’s positions on 22 Dec and 26 Dec

Zichy embodied the qualities of what we would call today a citizen scientist. He was keen to learn about the world through first-hand experience and use his insights for the public good. His guiding principle for keeping a diary features on the title page of his manuscript: Nulla dies sine linea (‘No day without a line’, that is no day should pass without a line written).

While Zichy was ‘only’ interested in the aesthetics of sea sparkle, he may have unwittingly made an important contribution to environmental history of the Arabian Sea in light of current studies on the possible nexus between increasing bioluminescent algal blooms and unfolding environmental change. Even if this is not the case, his observations certainly offer opportunities for interdisciplinary research, bridging humanities and environmental studies, a dynamically growing field of environmental humanities.

If you cannot frolic with luminous fellow creatures this Christmas, you may still dive into watching and recording (so easy with mobile phones!) a natural spectacle, inspired by Zichy, our fellow citizen scientist from the 19th century. Who knows where your Christmas diary might end up in the history of science?

Andrea Deri, Cataloguer

References/Further reading:

R. Santhanam, Marine Dinoflagellates (New York, 2015) (B) 579.81776

Therese Wilson, J. Woodland (Woody), Bioluminescence: living lights, lights for living (Cambridge, Mass., 2013) YK.2013.a.10980

Balsubramiam Arunachalam, ‘Traditional Sea and Sky Wisdom of Indian Seamen and Their Practical Applications’ in Himanshu Prabha Ray, Jean-Francois Salles, Tradition and Archaeology - Early Maritime Contacts in the Indian Ocean (New Delhi, 1996) ORW.1997.a.1626

Balsubramiam Arunachalam, Heritage of Indian Sea Navigation (Mumbai, 2003) YA.2003.a.26499

Ismael Vaccaro, Eric Alden Smith, Shankar Aswani, Environmental social sciences: methods and research design (Cambridge, 2010)

University of British Columbia, Phyto'pedia - The Phytoplankton Encyclopaedia Project: Noctiluca stintillans (UBC, 2012)

iSpot: Share Nature - an Open University platform where today’s citizen scientists can upload their sightings (photo, text) and request identification

08 May 2018

“A rogue and a madman”: August Strindberg's Antibarbarus

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In his anti-literary 1890s, August Strindberg took to the laboratory to experiment in alchemy, and some of his thoughts led to a peculiar book published in Germany in 1894 called Antibarbarus I: oder Die Welt für sich und die Welt für mich (YA.1990.a.22668). His discovery of the process of transmuting lead into gold was conjecture and anti-scientific, if anti-anything, but 13 years later, this simple pamphlet, first published in Germany, transmuted into one of the finest luxury editions printed in Sweden.

Antibarbarus - coverCover of August Strindberg,  Antibarbarus: Det är en vidlyftig undersökning om grundämnenas natur och ett nytt betraktelsesätt af de kemiska operationernas förlopp enligt den rådande monist-teorien om naturens allhet & enhet, sådan den af Darwin och Hæckel tillämpats på de andra naturvetenskaperna (Stockholm: 1906) Cup.408.I.20.)

Strindberg composed Antibarbarus as a series of letters written in the second person, addressing an unidentified correspondent on diverse scientific principles. His first letter was entitled, ‘The ontogeny of sulphur’, the second, ‘On the transmutation of matter, transformist chemistry, or everything in everything’, the third, ‘Thoughts on the composition of air and water’, and a fourth, simply ‘Paralipomena’. He himself thought he ‘simply drew all the logical conclusions inherent in Transformism and Monism,’ (letter to Torsten Hedlund, 23 July 1894) that is, the belief that all matter has a single shared substance and elements differ only in their properties and not as entities, to paraphrase his first letter.

What he did not account for was the mixture of bemusement and vehement criticism that the publication received. In a letter to Georg Brandes, soliciting the great critic’s help in reviewing it favourably in Denmark, Strindberg writes that his work ‘has caused the Swedes to depict me as a rogue and a madman […] There is in fact not a single paper in Sweden honourable enough to print a word in my defence’, ultimately surprised ‘to see a whole country’s chemists so blinded by jealousy that they cannot acknowledge their own views when they see them put forward by someone they find offensive!’ (31 May 1894). Even his friend and the translator of his Swedish manuscript into German, Bengt Lidforss, reviewed it harshly in Dagens Nyheter—albeit under a pseudonym, which was scant consolation.

Antibarbarus - title pageTitle page of  Antibarbarus

Five years later, the magazine Nordisk Boktryckarekonst (Stockholm, 1900-1925; PP.1622.h.) was established by Hugo and Carl Lagerström, who subsequently set up a publishing house, with aim of inaugurating an authentic Nordic style of book design. They sought a work with which to begin a series of bibliophile editions and Arthur Sjögren was enlisted both to produce the book and to convince Strindberg to volunteer the first idea for the series. Sjögren, who had worked with Strindberg, arrived at Strindberg’s studio to find a chemist’s laboratory in disarray and the author-cum-goldmaker deep into experiments. With Strindberg only thinking about scientific works, they eventually landed on Antibarbarus. The Antibarbarus manuscript had been under perpetual revision and expansion since 1894 and, with Strindberg’s encouragement, the Lagerströms decided to take it on.

Antibarbarus - fascicle 1Fascicle 1, Antibarbarus

Taking nearly a year to produce, Antibarbarus had a limited print run of 299, each copy priced at 30 Krona. To put it in context, very few books cost over 10 Krona and Strindberg’s luxury edition of Ordalek och småkonst, which came out a year earlier in 1905, cost 8.50. No expense was spared from the light-brown leather binding incorporating the same decorative coils and knots that frame the text throughout, to the thick hand-made paper from Grycksbo  with a specially designed watermark by Sjögren, depicting a four-leaf clover over a three-leaf clover. The coiled dragon-tail ornamentation that envelops the title-page is derived from Viking picture stone iconography, which speaks to the National Romantic ethos of the new publishers, but by no means renders William Morris’s decorative influence any less obvious. The portrait of a Faustian Strindberg facing the title-page takes us back to Sjöberg’s encounter with the author in his laboratory, while drawing comparisons with Goethe, as a similar polymathic genius.

Like his illustrated works before this, Strindberg’s manuscript influenced the artistic design and the drop capitals and annotations set within the body of the text appear to be original to the author. Notes are literally indicated by a red hand pointing and paragraphs are marked by red pilcrows, rather than spaced out. Connoisseurs did not particularly warm to these latter innovations in the layout but the book has been acknowledged to be one of the most exquisite Swedish books ever produced. Georg Svensson considers it Sjögren’s best.

Antibarbarus - slaying the dragonSlaying the dragon, Antibarbarus

Ultimately, we might say the design is in harmony with the content. One critic, G. Bargum, reads the work as the creative scientist’s labyrinthine search for a greater truth where each path is a dead end. He suggests that what is stabbed in the final ornamental image is a many-headed Hydra, who constricts the courageous opponent, so that he will never escape. A review in Dagens Nyheter (cited in Samlade Verk) prefers to see the dragon finally slain by a Sigurd figure and the obstacles triumphantly overcome. While Strindberg never made gold and never did conquer the world of science as his anti-barbarian persona might have wished, his creative genius – with all its delusions and idiosyncrasies – is still wonderfully celebrated in this book, paradoxically ensuring a legacy for his failure.

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections

References/Further Reading

August Strindberg, Naturvetenskapliga skrifter I [August Strindberg’s Samlade Verk, vol. 35] (Stockholm, 2009), YF.2011.a.4183

August Strindberg, Strindberg’s Letters [selected, edited and compiled by Michael Robinson] (London, 1992), 92/19967-8

G. Bargum, ‘Der neue Antibarbarus’, in Zeitschrift für Bücherfreunde (10:6), 1906, p. 253, P.P.6548.c.

30 April 2018

Why did Joseph Banks go to Iceland in 1772?

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In 1772 Joseph Banks, a wealthy 29-year-old landowner and one of the early naturalist explorers, led the first British scientific expedition to Iceland, then a dependency of the kingdom of Denmark-Norway. Banks had been on the celebrated Endeavour expedition with Captain Cook  in 1768-71, one of the most important voyages of discovery ever made. A member of the Royal Society since 1764, he was accepted for Cook’s voyage as a supernumerary in natural history, after he offered to pay not only for himself but a party of eight including artists and scientists. His participation on the Endeavour elevated Banks to ‘a figure of international scientific significance’ (Gascoigne, p. 692).

JosephBanks1773_Reynolds

Portrait of Joseph Banks by Joshua Reynolds (1773).  Image From Wikimedia Commons. The original portrait is currently on display in our exhibition ‘James Cook: the Voyages’, which runs until 28 August.

Due to the success of the Endeavour voyage another expedition to the South Pacific was planned for 1772. The prime aim of the second Cook voyage on the Resolution was to search for the existence of an Antarctic continent, the mythical Terra Australis. Banks, convinced that a ‘Southern’ continent existed, was overjoyed when Lord Sandwich, the First Lord of the Admiralty, invited him to be the scientific leader of the expedition.

Throughout the winter of 1771-72, Banks was busy assembling a party of scientists, artists, secretaries and servants, including a French chef, as well as vast equipment for collecting specimens, again at his own expense. All was progressing well until Banks saw the shipboard facilities for himself and his party. He became famously displeased. The vessel, he thought, was simply not large enough to accommodate his entourage and after a heated exchange with the Navy Board he abandoned the Resolution expedition in a fit of pique, thus earning himself negative epithets both from contemporaries and his later biographers.

To the disappointed Banks, it was, however, of prime necessity to engage his men in a new project. By early June he had settled on his new destination. Instead of searching for a massive continent south of Australia, he decided to head north, his choice falling on Iceland. The question begging to be answered is: why Iceland?

Clevely View of a mountainJohn Cleveley the younger, ‘View of a mountain, near Hekla with a view of a travelling caravan’, Add MS. 15511, f.48.  

Scholars have advanced various theories, but in his Iceland journal Banks adequately explained the reasons for his decision. As the sailing season was much advanced he:

saw no place at all within the Compass of my time so likely to furnish me with an opportunity as Iceland, a countrey which...has been visited but seldom … The whole face of the countrey new to the Botanist & Zoologist as well as the many Volcanoes with which it is said to abound made it very desirable to Explore... (Banks’s Journal, p. 47).

And from the documentary evidence it seems clear that seeing ‘burning mountains’, as volcanoes were called at the time, had become the major aim of the voyage. There was a growing interest in volcanology and in his passport, quickly issued at the beginning of July by the Danish envoy in London, the main purpose of Banks’s visit was recorded as observing Mount Hekla, the most famous of the Icelandic volcanoes. The ascent of Hekla was the highlight of the expedition, the measurements of the spouting hot springs described by Banks as ‘volcanoes of water’ (the word geyser was coined later, Geysir being the proper name of the most magnificent of the Icelandic hot springs), coming a close second. On their return The Scots Magazine reported in November 1772 that they had ‘applied themselves in a particular manner to the study of volcanoes’.

Clevely Crater of GeyserAbove: John Cleveley the younger, ‘View of the crater of geyser, immediately after an eruption when empty’, Add MS. 15511, f.37; Below: John Cleveley the younger, ‘View of the eruption of geiser’, Add MS. 15511, f.43. Both drawings are also on display in the James Cook exhbition.

Clevely Geyser erupting

Banks prepared his voyage as best he could within the limited period of time he had. Understandably he found no-one in London who had been to Iceland but Claus Heide, a Dane resident in London, gave him information ‘Chiefly out of books’ (BL Add MS 8094, ff. 29-30). The King of Denmark was notified of their wish to visit Iceland and was only too happy to sanction the ‘celebrated English Lords’ journey.

Among the members of the expedition were three artists: John Cleveley Jr, James Miller and his brother John Frederick Miller, and their magnificent drawings and watercolours are invaluable sources. These illustrations, over 70 of them, are now in the British Library and in steady use (Add MS 15511-15512).

Clevely Skaholt ChurchJohn Cleveley the younger, View of the Cathedral Church of Skálholt, southern Iceland; with houses, and villagers tending cattle in the foreground, Add MS. 15511, f.17

Banks also collected Icelandic manuscripts and books – something he had prepared before his departure as he wrote to Bodley’s Librarian, the Reverend John Price, that he was about to sail to Iceland and while there would endeavour to procure Icelandic manuscripts. Today over 120 books and 30 manuscripts are in the British Library, including copies of the first Icelandic version of the Bible from 1584, Snorri Sturluson’s Edda and the most famous saga, Njal’s Saga (Add MS. 45712, 4857-96). Men were sent to the only printing press in Iceland, at Hólar, to buy copies of the books printed there. In the years following his visit the district governor Ólafur Stephensen, now a friend, continued to collect and consequently ‘charged our best copyists to transcribe the antiquities and sagas’ (24 June 1773, Sir Joseph Banks, Iceland and the North Atlantic 1772-1820, p. 183)

Banks’s chartered ship, the Sir Lawrence, a brig of 190 tons, with a crew of 12, eventually left Gravesend on 12 July 1772, ironically the same day as Cook started on his second voyage. He arrived in Iceland at the end of August and after an eventful stay of six weeks they left in early October, loaded down with, among other objects, specimens of lava, Icelandic manuscripts and two Icelandic dogs, aptly named Hekla and Geysir.

As a consequence of the Iceland expedition, Banks became the acknowledged British expert on Iceland and a faithful friend of the Icelanders. Three decades later during the Napoleonic Wars, Banks assumed a crucial political role as self-appointed protector of Iceland, smoothing the way for their trade during the conflict and repeatedly urging the British government to annex the island for the benefit of the inhabitants. He became the architect of Britain’s political and commercial policy towards the Atlantic dependencies of the Danish realm.

Anna Agnarsdóttir, Emeritus Professor, University of Iceland

Further reading:

Anna Agnarsdóttir (ed.), Sir Joseph Banks, Iceland and the North Atlantic 1772-1820. Journals, Letters and Documents, (London, 2016), YC.2016.b.2118.

Id., ‘After the Endeavour: What next for Joseph Banks?’, in Endeavouring Banks: Exploring collections from the Endeavour Voyage 1768-1771 (London, 2016), LC.31.b.1774

Harold B. Carter, Sir Joseph Banks 1743-1820 (London, 1988), YK.1988.b.2415

Neil Chambers (ed.), The Letters of Sir Joseph Banks. A Selection 1768–1820 (London, 2000) m01/13368

John Gascoigne, ‘Banks, Sir Joseph, baronet (1743-1820)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 3 (Oxford, 2004).

Halldór Hermannsson, ‘Sir Joseph Banks and Iceland’, Islandica, vol. 18 (1928) Ac.2692.g/6.

Uno von Troil, Letters on Iceland (Dublin, 1780) 10280.eee.14.

02 February 2016

Sceptical medicine

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Martín Martínez (1684-1734) was a major figure in the reform of Spanish medicine.

Medicina sceptica BT
Martín Martínez, Medicina sceptica, y cirugia moderna, con un tratado de operaciones chirurgicas ... (Madrid, [1748]). British Library RB.23.a.36759

This newly-acquired book is a nice example of how in times earlier than our own there was no division between the Two Cultures: in the 18th century scientific works had to written with literary style.

Science in Spain was still heavily dependent on unquestioning acceptance of the authority of the Greeks and Romans. But Martínez was a sceptic, defined by the first dictionary of the Spanish Academy as: “adjective applied to a certain philosophical school, which affirmed nothing and defined nothing, and was empoyed only in impugning the opinions of others, doubting everything” :

SCEPTICO, CA. adj. que se aplica à cierta secta Philosóphica, que nada afirmaba, ni definía; sí solo se empleaba en impugnar las [r.57] opiniones de los otros, dudandolo todo (Diccionario de Autoridades, Tomo VI (1739))

Note that for the Academicians these Sceptics lived (past tense) in Antiquity.

This work on modern medicine takes the form of a dialogue between Galenico (a follower of Galen), Chimico (a chemist) and Hippocratico (a follower of Hippocrates). But the author, as a true sceptic, is not himself mired in the past: he cites “Hyppocrates, Erasistrato, Celso” [all ancients] but also “Boyle, Sidenham, Capoa, Silvio, Gassendo ... and the most celebrated men of the last century” (I, Introduccion, e3r).

Although the language of medicine in the 18th century was still Latin (the language in which he read those foreign worthies cited in the previous paragraph), Martínez writes in Spanish, because “mejor es saber en Romance, que ignorar en Latin” [it is better to be knowledgable in the vernacular than ignorant in Latin].

If there was a controversy going in 18th-century Spain, Father Benito was not going to be left out. Here he weighs in with a defence of his fellow sceptic and doubter of authority.

An added interest is the contemporary soft parchment binding, with bead and loop fastenings. In this case, as usual, the loops are there and the beads have gone.

Medicina sceptica binding 1

And although there is a printed table of contents (I, d5rv) an early reader has added his own handwritten table of contents on the flyleaf at the end of vol. I.

Medicina sceptica MS index

This book fills a gap in the British Library’s collection which goes back to 1955. In that year the Library acquired a pamphlet written in defence of the Medicina sceptica:

Opusculo nuevo 1481.c.41(48)
Pedro Salinas, Opusculo nuevo. Monita chimica secreta, en favor de la Medicina sceptica del Doctor D. Martin Martinez. ([Madrid?,c. 1760] ) 1481.c.41.(48)

And now we know what the fuss was about.

Barry Taylor, Curator Hispanic Studies 

23 December 2015

Vodka - a panacea for all illnesses?

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The lack of physicians and apothecaries throughout 16th century Poland on one hand and of medical guidebooks in the Polish language on the other  were Stefan Falimirz’s motives for undertaking the compilation of a book on herbal medicine O ziołach y o moczy gich. The herbal is a compilation of texts from Latin sources with the author’s added information on plants native to Poland.  It is the first book to use Polish botanical and medical terminology.  For this reason the book is also considered important for the development of Polish medical lexicography. Very little is known about the author. He was a friend of the publisher Florian Ungler and courtier to a Polish voivode. It is not clear whether he was a physician or botanist by training, but he obviously had a great interest in natural science.

Falimirz Image 1
Title page of Stefan Falimirz’s O ziołach y o moczy gich (Kraków, 1534) British Library C.185.a.1

The herbal is regarded as a treatise on pharmacology, medicine and botany as well as a practical medical guide, which was meant to help save lives in the context of the inadequate healthcare provision of the time. The book consists of five chapters, of which the first one provides the title for the whole work: On herbs and their potency.  Other subjects covered include the medicinal properties of birds, animals and fishes, blood-letting, obstetrics and infants’ ailments, surgery, etc.  

In the second chapter Falimirz describes some seventy brands of vodka and their health benefits.  He initially gives  instructions on the process of distilling vodka and then lists the different kinds alphabetically.  The chapter concludes with a list of illnesses cured by them.  Thus a well-supplied home apothecary was the guarantee for curing each illness. We learn that violet vodka is good for tuberculosis while the sage one is linked to curing headaches, but the honey vodka is supposed to clear the blood. On the other hand, hetmans and captains were given  wormwood-infused vodka but only when they were heading for war. The author recommends grass vodka for the sufferer from jaundice as well as for alleviating wrist pain. Disorders of the head can be cured by ten different brands of vodka such as marjoram, lavender, sage and peony. Against memory loss, fennel vodka is supposed to help. Heart disease can be treated with  lavender, borage or St. John Wort infusions. 

Falimirz image 2Frontispiece to chapter 2 of O ziołach y o moczy gich, on herb-infused vodkas

Some of Falimirz’s recommendations seem universal and timeless. He has, for example, a remedy for the citizens of a modern city exposed to noxious air either in air-conditioned offices or in the polluted streets. His advice would be a shot of oak-tree vodka. With the festive season just a few days away, Falimirz would recommend a small glass of peppermint or sage vodka to treat stomach disorders as it is reputed to aid digestion.

It is not surprising that it proved the most popular book of its time. 12 copies which are recorded in Poland are imperfect, but   the British Library copy is faultless. The herbal is lavishly illustrated and contains over 600 woodcuts.

   
Sage 1     WORMWOOD 3
Entries on sage (left) and wormwood (right)  from O ziołach y o moczy gich

Magda Szkuta, Curator East European Collections