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Discover Science at the British Library


We are the British Library Science Team; we provide access to world-leading scientific information resources, manage UK DataCite and run science events and exhibitions. This blog highlights a variety of the activities we are involved with. Follow us on Twitter: @ScienceBL. Read more

13 September 2019

The sixtieth anniversary of the first human created object to land on the Moon, Luna 2

Earlier this year, there was much commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the first landing by humans on the Moon, by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin of Apollo 11. Today is the sixtieth anniversary of an earlier achievement, the first human-created object to land on the Moon (or any celestial object other than Earth). This was the Soviet probe Luna 2, which landed on the Moon on the 13th Sep 1959 (the 14th by USSR time), after being launched around one and a half days before. The third and final stage of the probe's launch rocket also hit the lunar surface, in an uncertain location.

A policed metal globe of tesellating pentagons, each marked CCCP 1959
Copy of the ball of plaques carried on Luna 2, now displayed at the Kansas Cosmosphere. Photograph by Patrick Pelletier, used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.

There is also a British element to this event. Some people in the USA and other western countries had suspected that previous spaceflight achievements by the Soviet Union had been exaggerated or entirely faked for propaganda purposes. Due to this, the astronomer Bernard Lovell, the founder of the Jodrell Bank radioobservatory, acted as an independent witness to prove that Luna 2 actually had been launched and had reached the Moon.

Luna 2 was designed by the leading USSR space systems designer Sergei Korolev. The probe carried equipment to investigate the Earth's magnetic field, radiation, cosmic particles, and micrometeor impacts. A previous, similar probe, Luna 1, had been launched in January, but missed the Moon due to a failure of control of the rocket. Luna 2 successfully landed in the Palus Putredinus region. Luna 1 and Luna 2 confirmed that there was no measurable magnetic field or radiation belt around the moon. The next successful Soviet Moon probe, Luna 3, successfully orbited the moon and took the first photographs of its dark side. Later, in 1966, Luna 9 became the first human-made object to make a controlled soft landing on the moon.

Moscow Cosmos sent Lovell tracking data for Luna 2 and radio frequencies provided by USSR news reports. Jodrell Bank telescope picked up signals from satellite from claimed position exactly as required on two separate occasions. US astronomers were sceptical until Lovell held the telephone handset to the loudspeaker so that they could hear the bleeps. The apparent signal frequency of the transmissions changed due to Doppler shift exactly as predicted from acceleration of the probe under lunar gravity. The last signal was detected from 50 miles above the Moon's surface and the end of the transmission was too abrupt for the satellite to have passed behind the moon. Luna 2 hit the Moon's surface at 22:02:23 BST on 13th Sep 1959 at 7500 mph. The launching rocket also emitted a cloud of glowing vapourised sodium once it had reached 97000 miles from Earth, so that it could be more easily tracked. The probe incorporated a hollow titanium ball covered with Soviet symbols, which was intended to break up on impact and scatter them over the landing site.

An image of craters on the Moon with a close up of a probe.
The later USSR Luna 16 mission landed on the Moon, photographed by the US Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Photograph used by permission from NASA for informational purposes.

Lovell, B, Here is the evidence that the Moon was hit, LIFE 47(13), 28 Sept. 1959, p. 53
Lund, T, Early exploration of the Moon: Ranger to Apollo, Luna to Lunniy, Cham: Springer, 2018. Available as an ebook in British Library Reading Rooms.



03 July 2019

Renaissance science works in Treasures of the British Library

To replace the Leonardo da Vinci items that are usually in our Treasures gallery, but are now in the stand-alone "A Mind in Motion" exhibition, our Manuscripts and Incunabula curators have selected some less well-known but very interesting items dealing with the connection between art and science in the Renaissance. On the pure art side are some works by Albrecht Dürer and Michelangelo, but this post is about three volumes of Renaissance science. They sum up the way that humanists during the Renaissance sought to synthesise the existing knowledge of medieval Europeans with rediscovered Classical texts, many of which had been lost in Europe but preserved by Arabic scholars, and further advances that had been made in the Arabic world.

Manuscript page showing pictures of flowers
Depiction of edelweiss from the Codex Bellunensis.

The first item, shelfmark Add MS 41623, is the "Codex Bellunensis", a bound manuscript of herbal material in Latin with some Italian notes. Much of the content is based on De Materia Medica by Pedanius Dioscorides, a famous Greek physician of the first century CE. De Materia Medica was the single most important herbal text in Europe from its writing until the nineteenth century. "Bellunensis" refers to the town of Belluno in Italy, north of Venice, where the manuscript may have been created. The page to which the manuscript is opened in the display shows what is thought to be the first artistic representation of edelweiss, used to treat abdominal and respiratory diseases. The other herbs shown on this spread are valerian, an early sedative, eupatorium, and agrimony. The whole manuscript can be read free online .

The second item, shelfmark Royal MS 12 G VII, is a fifteenth-century Latin copy of Kitab al-Manazir, or "Optics", and another short work, by the great Arab scientist Hasan Ibn al-Haytham, known in Renaissance Europe as Alhazen. The pages on display deal with binocular vision and how the visual axes of the eyes intersect. The book was the first to empirically demonstrate that sight occurs when light reflected from an object enters the eye. Many early classical thinkers had believed that vision worked by the eye emitting some kind of "ray of sight". The book also includes "Alhazen's problem", a geometrical problem involving finding the point on a spherical mirror that a light ray from a given location must strike to be reflected to a second given location. This would not be completely solved algebraically until 1965. The copy on display comes from the Royal Manuscripts collection, a collection of manuscripts and printed books donated by King George II to the British Museum (not to be confused with the King's Library collection housed in the centre of the building, which was donated later by George IV).

Manuscript page showing artistic depiction of constellations
Illustration from the Phaenomena

The third of these items, shelfmark Add MS 15819,  is a manuscript copy of the Phaenomena by Aratus of Soli, a Greek poet of the early third century BCE. This is a long poem with one section describing the constellations of the stars, and a shorter second section on weather forecasting based on observations of the heavenly bodies and animal behaviour. You can read a public domain English prose translation of the poem at the Theoi Project, although we have two copies of the most recent English translation by Douglas Kidd in our collections. Our copy is a manuscript of the Latin translation of the poem by the Roman general Germanicus Julius Caesar, the nephew of the emperor Tiberius and father of Caligula. Our manuscript dates from the fifteenth century and once belonged to, and was probably written for, Francesco Sassetti, a senior manager in the Medici Bank.

Posted by Philip Eagle, with thanks to Eleanor Jackson, Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts, and Karen Limper-Herz, Lead Curator Incunabula and Sixteenth-Century Books.

21 June 2019

Influencing Environments: Material, Socio-political, and Ethical Environments in Anne McLaren’s Work

Anne McLaren (1927-2007) was a leading mammalian developmental biologist who worked primarily with mice and contributed to many fields, including most famously the development of in vitro fertilization (IVF). As McLaren often put it, she was interested in ‘everything involved in getting from one generation to the next’, and in particular, she emphasized the ways in which an individual is always connected to, and a part of, its many environments. Taking a cue from McLaren, then, this post considers how environments—understood materially, socially, and ethically—shaped McLaren’s work.

Scientific Environments

For McLaren, environmental effects are never incidental—not for cells, not for science, and not for the scientist in society—and even her earliest experiments probed deeply into the effects of various environments. Some of the environmental effects she studied are more familiar, like the effect of ambient temperature on population variance, and others are more surprising, like the genetic effect that a mother’s uterus, and not just the material contained within the egg, has on the development of an embryo.

Chart showing influences of the environment and genetics on development cycle
Figure 1. Slide from McLaren’s thumbnail sheet (Add MS 89202/2/20). Copyright © Estate of Anne McLaren.

While McLaren’s research showed how interconnected our very cells are with our environments, she showed an acute awareness for how this interconnectivity proves equally true for science itself. For example, McLaren knew that science needed diverse perspectives to grow, and so she actively fostered collaborative working environments. She was also highly attuned to socio-political issues, including the changing interests of funding bodies; structural gaps, like the lack of accessible childcare, that limit the participation of women in science; and the rise of new social concerns, including those surrounding ‘designer babies’ as embryonic research progressed. She knew that each of these issues materially shaped what scientific questions got asked and by whom (McLaren).
But McLaren did not stop with simply acknowledging the ways in which science was affected by its environment. She also held the reciprocal to be true: scientists affect their own physical, socio-political, and ethical environments. She therefore worked throughout her life to uphold what she saw as the duty of scientists, namely, to share research widely and to work with the public in ensuring that science progresses ethically and in the best interests of society.

Working Environments

But how did McLaren’s own research environments affect her actual work? The path that led to her 1958 breakthrough with John Biggers (1924-2001) on successfully transplanting fertilized mouse embryos cultured in vitro (in glass) to surrogate mothers proves an illuminating example.
From 1952-1959, McLaren and her then-husband Donald Michie (1923-2007) worked together on embryo transfer experiments. They first worked at University College London, but when they ran out of space for their mice in 1955, they undertook what proved to be a fortuitous move into the larger facilities at the Royal Veterinary College, London. There, they had room to grow and, as an added bonus, enjoyed relative autonomy from a specific department while doing their work (McLaren).

Handwritten diary heading giving location and date

McLaren and Michie’s experiments went through more than just a change of scenery though. Across their work, they tested a variety of processes for ovary transplants, specimen preservation methods, and embryo transfers from a donor mouse to a surrogate mother. They also experimented with superovulation and superpregnancy, or hormonally triggered ovulation cycles and artificially increased litter sizes respectively, in order to consider, for example, what factors might hinder an embryo’s chance of survival, such as uterine crowding. They asked as many questions as they could and perfected a method of transferring embryos in vivo (directly from the donor to the surrogate), while also proving that the surrogate mother’s uterus passed on genetic effects to the transplanted offspring, tracked in the case of their experiments through the number of lumbar vertebrae (McLaren and Michie).

Handwritten pages of notes on scientific experiments
Figure 3. Pages from McLaren's Embryo Transfer Experiments Notebook, 1955-1959 (Add MS 83844). Copyright © Estate of Anne McLaren.

In the midst of this flurry of work, McLaren and Michie met Biggers. Their research interests overlapped, and, with him, McLaren and Michie undertook even more parallel experiments. One such experiment considered the effect of temperature on population variance, mentioned above, which was inspired in part because they had access to three different temperature rooms at the Vet Collage. Biggers, McLaren, and Michie also briefly considered the relationship between the length of a mouse’s tail—a major site of heat loss—and its ability to regulate temperature, although Biggers reports that they never fully explored that project (Biggers).

Hand-drawn "tree of life" diagram

This rich, collaborative, and multi-tasked environment can be likened to a Darwinian tree of research ideas with many offshoots. As a product of this environment, a seemingly small experiment took place over about two months in the summer of 1958. Using the techniques McLaren had perfected with Michie, she and Biggers cultured 249 fertilized embryos for 48 hours in vitro before transplanting them into eight female mice (McLaren and Biggers). Nineteen days later, these transplants resulted in the live birth of two mice, or as McLaren called them, ‘bottled babies’, which were the first mammals ever cultured outside of a uterine environment pre-implantation (Biggers).

Newspaper column heading with headline "Brave New Mice"
Figure 5. Anthony Smith, ‘Brave New Mice.’ Daily Telegraph, 6 October 1958, p. 11.

This experiment, dubbed by the press as producing ‘Brave New Mice’, justifiably received much scientific and public attention, while also laying the ground work for IVF in humans only 20 years later. Yet, as we see, the experiment itself was but a single offshoot in a much larger web of experiments, in which IVF as such was not specifically McLaren’s focus. This incredible range of McLaren’s impact is due in no small part to the efficient way in which she used the environments, people, and resources around her to their fullest potential, asking as much as she could from and through them in order to learn and give back.

Bridget Moynihan
PhD student, University of Edinburgh

As a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, Bridget Moynihan’s research focuses on archival ephemera and digital humanities. These same interests led Bridget to undertake a British Library internship, researching the notebooks of Anne McLaren.

Further reading in the British Library

    1. For more on the temperature experiments, consult Add MS 83846, Add MS 83847, and Add MS 83848 for laboratory notebooks documenting these experiments, and Add MS 83972, which contains some of McLaren’s relevant published papers, such as 'The growth and development of mice in three climatic environments'. See also Add MS 89202/6/26, which includes tail length data.
    2. For more on the uterine effect experiments, consult Add MS 83843, Add MS 83844, and Add MS 83845 for laboratory notebooks documenting these experiments, Add MS 83830 for conference papers presented by McLaren, including ‘An Effect of the Uterine Environment upon an Inherited Skeletal Character in the Mouse’, and Add MS 83972 for some of McLaren’s relevant published papers, such as ‘Factors Affecting Vertebral Variation in Mice. 4: Experimental Proof of the Uterine Basis of a Maternal Effect’.
    3. For more on the in vitro mice, consult Add MS 89202/2/10 for McLaren and Biggers’ article ‘‘Test-Tube’ Animals. The Culture and Transfer of Early Mammalian Embryos’.


Biggers, JD. ‘Research in the canine block.’ Int J Dev Biol. 2001; 45:469–76.
McLaren, A. and Michie, D. ‘Factors affecting vertebral variation in mice. 4: Experimental proof of the uterine basis of a maternal effect.’ JEEM 6, 1958: 645-659.
McLaren, A. and Biggers, JD. ‘Successful Development and Birth of Mice Cultivated in vitro as Early Embryos.’ Nature 182, 1958: 877-878.
McLaren, A. ‘Professor Dame Anne McLaren interviewed by Martin Johnson and Sarah Franklin.’ 2007, oral history recording at the British Library.