Science blog

Exploring science at the British Library


Find out about social sciences at the British Library including collections, events and research. This blog includes contributions from curators and guest posts by academics, students and practitioners. Read more

05 June 2021

“Strange Swarms of Insects”



Screenshot 2021-06-02 at 18.00.46
Magicicada septendecim, 17-year-periodical cicada, Danville, Illinois, USA. Wikipedia Commons.


The periodic emergence of swarms of cicadas in the eastern United States which is currently underway was one of the first natural history observations to appear in the scientific literature. In 1667 Henry Oldenburg wrote in Volume 1 of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society

Strange swarms of insects - A great observer, who hath lived long in New England, did upon occasion, relate to a friend of his in London, where he lately was, That some few years since there was such a swarm of a certain sort of Insects in that English colony, that for the space of of 200 miles they poyson'd and destroyed all the trees of that country; there being found innumerable little holes in the ground, out of which those Insects broke forth in the form of maggots, which turned into flyes that had a kind of taile or sting, which they struck into the tree, and thereby envenomed and killed it.”

The biology of this event is extraordinary. A few closely related species of cicadas (Magicicada septendecim, M. cassini, and M. septendecula) form enormous broods of billions of insects. They emerge from the soil as nymphs that moult into sexually mature adults. This happens in the north eastern US states every 17 years while another cohort of species emerges every 13 years in southern states. Cicadas are true bugs in the same group as the froghoppers that produce the cuckoo spit we see in gardens in the summer.

Screenshot 2021-06-05 at 14.00.45
Active periodical Cicada broods of the United States. US Forest Service.

Males gather in chorus groups and their calls attract females for mating. The calls are distinct for each species, preventing hybridisation and lower fertility. Eggs are laid on plant stems and once they hatch the young nymphs enter the soil and begin to feed on the rootlets of trees, moving deeper to larger roots as they grow. The 13 or 17 years that nymphs stay underground makes for the longest development period of any insect although they are not the longest lived insects, termite queens holding that record at 60 years. Individual cicadas grow to be large over this extended period and populations can reach densities as high as 1 tonne per hectare.

Mass emergence is thought to have evolved in the recent geological past of N America. The cooler temperatures during the Pleistocene, when glaciers reached far below the Arctic, favoured a switch from size dependent to temperature dependent development. Other cicada species living nearer the equator emerge at variable times when each nymph reaches a mature size. But in cooler climates with slower and even more variable emergence the population density in any year would be reduced and mating would become less successful. Synchronised emergence increases the population density and with it the opportunities to find mates. Emerging in huge numbers also surfeits predators and the birds and mammals that feed on the cicadas are spoilt for choice, leaving plenty of adults to reproduce.

So, 354 years after their first scientific description periodic cicadas are still the focus of research how do these insects count the years and why do they count in prime (13 and 17) numbers? These questions are still very far from being answered.

Further reading

Francisca Fuentes Rettig and Lucy Rowland. “Reading Brood X” American Collections Blog. The British Library. 18 May 2021.

Stephen Jay Gould. “Of bamboos, cicadas and the economy of Adam Smith”, in Ever since Darwin (London, Burnett Books, 1978)      pp.97-102. British Library shelfmarkX.329/11640

Kathy S. Williams Chris Simon. The ecology, behavior and evolution of periodical cicadas. Annual Review of Entomology. 1995. 40:269-95. British Library shelfmark 1522.500000. Also available online


Richard Wakeford

Science Reference Team




07 May 2021

Wiley Digital Archive on history of science now available at the British Library

The words Wiley Digital Archive, with a logo of three books standing as if on a shelf
We are happy to announce that this week we have acquired the Wiley Digital Archives of several major learned societies. The collections currently available are those from the New York Academy of Sciences, the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Geographical Society, the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, and the Royal College of Physicians. The database also includes scientific material from major British universities, digitised as part of the BAAS project.

Information in the archives includes field notes on Hausa Islamic law, beginners' lessons in the Mole language spoken in parts of Ghana, research for a government investigation into early-Victorian mine ventilation, reports on an earthquake in Erzerum, Turkey in 1859, a recipe for a "very rare and excellent" seventeenth-century "wound drink", and a huge range of maps. The Royal College of Physicians collections include a number of digitised incunabula and medieval printed books. For those items which might be harder to read, automated transcriptions are available.

Unfortunately the database cannot currently be used from outside the Library, but we are open again and any reader with an interest in the history of science is highly recommended to come in and try it out.

18 March 2021

Donald Michie: Interviewing Trofim Lysenko

A combined photograph shows the faces of two white men.
Left: Trofim Lysenko in 1938. Picture in public domain. Right: Donald Michie c. 1980s. (Add MS 88958/5/4). Reproduced with permission of the estate of Donald Michie.

In August 1957, a 33-year-old Donald Michie travelled across Europe to visit Moscow. The journey was a remarkable one. Driving through Germany and Poland in a 1948 Standard drop head coupé with his friend from Oxford, John Matheson, the pair had lively encounters with enthusiastic locals, a Polish hitchhiker, and even an offer for their car from a film director in Russia.i

Whilst visiting the Institute of Genetics in Moscow, Michie had a chance encounter with Trofim Lysenko, the infamous Soviet geneticist. Seizing the opportunity, a five-hour interview between the two and Lysenko’s colleagues ensued, with a transcript and reports following in British publications over the following 12 months. What had started out as the tour of a young socialist had turned into a golden chance to meet and interrogate the man at the centre of one of the greatest scientific controversies of the twentieth century.

The British scientific community was rocked in the 1940s and ‘50s by the rise of Lysenko to Director of the Institute of Genetics in Moscow. His theories and methods (both scientific and as a political figure) prompted resignations from scientific societies, radio broadcasts and journal articles denigrating him, and no small degree of infighting as people attempted to separate the emerging Cold War political divide from the scientific merits (or demerits) of his work. Michie, as a young geneticist forging his career in this time, found himself at the heart of this.

Lysenko was a neo-Lamarckist, arguing that characteristics acquired in response to the environment an organism lives in could then be passed on to future generations. The traditional view of the 1950s, based on the work of Gregor Mendel, was that the environment’s role was limited to accelerating or slowing down random mutations of genes. Lysenko’s belief in this view was not the only factor in driving controversy. The international scientific community was also concerned by the state endorsement of his science within the Soviet Union, prompting the disappearance, side-lining, or death of prominent critics, such as N. I. Vavilov. Lysenko’s precise liability remains an issue of contention to this day.

A photograph showing a group of white men and women in casual suits.
Michie’s visit to the Institute of Genetics. Left to right: Kosikov, Ružica Glavinic, John Matheson, Trofim Lysenko, Nuzhdin, Anne McLaren and Donald Michie. Reproduced with permission of the estate of Donald Michie.

Michie was carving out his career in genetics in the 1950s. By 1953, he had finished his DPhil in mammalian genetics under the supervision of E. B. Ford at Oxford. He then moved to work as a researcher at UCL alongside notable figures such as J. B. S. Haldane, Michie’s second wife and celebrated biologist Anne McLaren, and future Nobel Prize winner Peter Medawar. Michie had already dipped his toe in the waters of the Lysenko debate in a remarkable exchange of letters to an obscure rabbit breeders’ magazine, Fur and Feather, showing himself unafraid to side with controversy as he argued in favour of testing Lysenko’s theories.ii

The cover of a journal with masthead, the first page of text of the first article, and contents of the rest of the magazine.
First page of Donald Michie, ‘Interview with Lysenko’, Soviet Science Bulletin, V (1 & 2, 1958), 1-10. Add MS 89202/11/6

The interview with Lysenko revolved around a major theme from Michie: would Lysenko be prepared to share his methods, publish work in English and permit exchanges of personnel with Western institutions? Michie’s belief was that differences between the West and Soviet Union could be overcome through collaboration and openness, fostering a spirit of sharing knowledge. Lysenko agreed with the sentiment, responding:

I do not agree with this division into Western genetics and Soviet genetics. Science is unitary. I believe, and my colleagues believe, that science knows no frontiers.iii

Both Michie and Lysenko argued for letting scientific results win the debate, however they understood the obstacles in the way of that outcome rather differently. Lysenko saw bad faith and entrenched attitudes from Western scientists, believing them unwilling to entertain the possibility of Soviet scientists producing good research. Michie saw barriers to accessibility, such as the poor understanding of the Russian language in the West. He criticised the stubbornness of Lysenko and his colleagues to share their techniques and offer work for publication in English journals, whilst also castigating Western scientists for not engaging with the science and testing it rigorously and with an open mind.

Ultimately, Michie concluded from his meeting with Lysenko:

The only certain remedy that I can see is to reunite the genetical profession in a single scientific brotherhood irrespective of politics, nationality or genetical creed. … In more definite terms, Soviet and East European biologists must be willing to publish in Western journals and vice versa.iv

The question which follows is: Did Michie’s interview impact Lysenko’s reputation in Britain?

The short answer is probably not. For instance, Michie drew upon Lysenkoist scientists in a remarkable 1958 essay reflecting on 100 years since Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.v The references to Lysenkoists were not well-received by reviewers, with them finding Michie’s piece out of step with the tone of the other essays in the collection. Lysenko’s reputation was, at least in the late 1950s, still entrenched negatively in the Western scientific world.

Shortly after these interventions, Michie drifted away from the world of genetics to pursue his long-standing interest in computers and artificial intelligence following his move to the University of Edinburgh in 1958. As such, his contributions on Lysenko petered out. He would go on to become one of the pioneers of artificial intelligence research in the United Kingdom. Never one to shy away from controversial topics, he found himself at the centre of the heated Lighthill debate in the 1970s concerning the funding of AI projects.

Lysenko’s reputation has largely remained contentious in the UK. Whilst there have been attempts to rehabilitate his science and separate it from his political reputation, such as by Chinese scientist Yongsheng Liu in the early 2000s, there is still a great deal of baggage associated with Lysenko.

Reflecting on the Lysenko controversy nearly 50 years later, Michie remarked:

Perhaps history is not after all a documented story of what probably happened. Rather, perhaps history is whatever tale of mystery and imagination becomes in the end too embedded to set

Whilst this may have been one tale which Michie could not set straight, his open-mindedness and commitment to scientific exchange as an early-career researcher are admirable and fascinating to see in the face of such a controversial and fraught debate.

Matt Wright

Sources and Further Reading
Michie, D., ‘The Moscow Institute of Genetics’, Discovery, October 1957, pp. 432-434, p. 434. Available in Add MS 89202/11/6.
Michie, D., ‘Interview with Lysenko’, Soviet Science Bulletin, V (1 & 2, 1958), 1-10, p. 4. Available in Add MS 89202/11/6.
Michie, D., ‘The Third Stage in Genetics’, in A Century of Darwin, ed. By S. A. Barnett, (London: Heinemann, 1958), pp. 56-84.
Donald Michie to Judith Field, 14 July 2005, in London, British Library, uncatalogued digital collection.

Matt Wright is a PhD student at the University of Leeds and the British Library. He is on an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnership researching the Donald Michie Archive, exploring his work as a geneticist and artificial intelligence researcher in post-war Britain.

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 2008. 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.

i Details of Michie’s trip driving across Europe in a 1948 Standard drop head coupé are available in Add MS 88958/3/21.
ii These letters are available in the Donald Michie archive: Add MS 88958/3/20.
iii Donald Michie, ‘Interview with Lysenko’, Soviet Science Bulletin, V (1 & 2, 1958), 1-10, p. 4. Available in Add MS 89202/11/6.
iv Donald Michie, ‘The Moscow Institute of Genetics’, Discovery, October 1957, pp. 432-434, p. 434.
v For more details, see Donald Michie, ‘The Third Stage in Genetics’, in A Century of Darwin, ed. By S. A. Barnett, (London: Heinemann, 1958), pp. 56-84.
vi Donald Michie to Judith Field, 14 July 2005, in London, British Library, uncatalogued digital collection.