Science blog

Exploring science at the British Library

2 posts from October 2017

23 October 2017

The realization of Star Trek Technologies

Star Trek captured my imagination as a child and I have been a trekkie ever since, so you can imagine my surprise earlier this year when a new book was placed by a colleague on our new book shelves in the science reading rooms, entitled “The realization of Star Trek Technologies: The Science, Not Fiction, Behind Brain Implants, Plasma Shields, Quantum Computing, and More” by Mark E. Lasbury, published by Springer,  2017.

Star Trek 9783319409122

Source: Springer permissions:

The science collections, here at the British Library, often include unusual gems, and this must be one of my favourites. The story was modelled on Jonathan Swifts "Gullivers Travels" and various American wild west and adventurer literature and became a media prism of the times. Many contemporary issues were played out in the scripts including racism, power, politics, warfare, rise and fall of empires, and these always had a moral dimension.

The cultural impact of Star Trek was enormous as it spawned a dedicated fan base over decades, who campaigned to keep it going in difficult times and ensuring it was a commercial success in the good times. The philosophy behind Star Trek enshrined values of hope, humanity, equality and the search for new knowledge and wider horizons.    

Spock and Kirk

Source: Leonard Nimoy - Wikipedia, Wikipedia 1507 × 1911 Search by image, Nimoy as Spock with William Shatner as Captain Kirk, 1968. Nimoy and Star Trek ...

Star trek, the US sci-fi franchise was created by Gene Roddenberry and the original series was launched in 1966 on the NBC TV network and followed the adventures of the explorer star ship “Enterprise” led by Captain James Tiberius Kirk in the 23 rd century. Gene created a new world in the imagination of generations of fans and this evolved into a wealth of characters, narratives,  TV series, films and even a constructed or artificial language, Klingon. We even hold a 1992 “Klingon dictionary : English/Klingon, Klingon/English” by Marc Okrand in our collections.

Image of Enterprise Star Ship

Mark Lasbury’s book explores the science behind this Star Trek world and helps us understand where the line between todays actual science and our science fiction is transforming into science fact as the decades roll by. He explaims the science of cloaking and invisibility, the variety of replicators from nanobot micro engineers, to 3D and 4D printers, to organic and cellular fabrication of human tissus, blood vessels and food.

Gravitational waves were predicted by Albert Einstein in 1906 and detected in 2017 by the physicist Nobel prize winners, Rainer Weiss, kip Thorne and Barry Barish and the author speculates on the nature of gravitons as both space time curvatures warped by celestial bodies and multi-dimensional points within the energy strings of superstring theory.  The author explores gravitons that could be used as deflector shields and tractor beams, the use of plasma and electromagnetic shields, the technological state of play of computational linguistics and the Universal Translator (UT).

Star Trek team


Harvey P. Lynn, (1921-1986), was the honorary science consultant in the early days of Star Trek, who graduated as an electrical engineer and worked at the RAND Corporation as a liaison officer between RAND and projects for the U.S. Air force. It was his critical input that adapted scripts to be both technically plausible and as it turned out, quite prophetic. Lynn is often credited with inventing the term "phaser", based on laser technology.

Lynn served for almost a year and a half receiving a nominal $50 per episode. Andre Bormanis followed in his footsteps for the the modern spin-off Star Trek live-action productions, while Jesco von Puttkamer also served as as science adviser on the earlier Star Trek:The Motion Picture. Each helped root Star Trek into science fact while launching our imaginations into science fantasy.

The British Library collections include much of this biographical, media business and socio-political background in key references such as:

  • The making of Star trek by Stephen E. Whitfield and Gene Roddenberry. Written by Stephen E. Whitfield, Ballantine Books, New York, 1968, shelf mark 72/27150 and 75/8853 (copies avilable via inter-library lending),  
  • Inside Star Trek : the real story,  by Herbert F. Solow and Robert H. Justman, Pocket Books, US/UK, 1996.  (Shelfmark: YK.1996.b.15904, reference copy),
  • Star trek. I’m working on that : a trek from science fiction to science fact William Shatner with Chip Walker, Pocket Books, London/New York, 2002. ( Shelfmark: YK.2003.a.28505 reference copy)
  • Otherworldly politics : the international relations of Star trek, Game of thrones, and Battlestar Galactica by Stephen Benedict Dyson,  Johns Hopkins University Press,  Baltimore, 2015 (Shelfmark: YC.2016.a.2351, reference copy) in which Dyson explains how these shows offer alternative histories and future possibilities for humanity.

For the Star Trek devotee and researcher The British Library holds both in-depth academic and scholarly works but also a variety of popular cultural resources found in comics, fanzines and science fiction publications. Entrance to the reading rooms is free upon registration, see our web site for further details and check our "Explore" catalogue for collection items of interest.

British Library registration:

 Star Trek official web site:

The Internet Movie Database:

Written and posted by Paul Allchin, Science reference specialist


13 October 2017

Local Heroes: Alphonse Normandy. Pure water and impure food

Alphonse Normandy was born in Rouen in 1809 as Alphonse le Mire. He became a medical doctor but was more interested in chemistry, studying at Heidelberg University with the well-known chemist Leopold Gmelin (now famous for the database of inorganic compounds named after him, which grew out of an 1817 textbook he wrote). He moved to London in 1838. From the 1840s he changed his name to "Normandy" after the region where he was born. He lived for some time in Judd Street near the British Library, where he has a blue plaque at number 91. He died in 1864.

He is mostly remembered for his invention of desalination devices, distilling seawater to produce fresh water. He patented his still design as GB13714/1851 with one Richard Fell. The patent is not online but you can see it if you come to the British Library with a reader pass. It uses two-effect distillation where the heat released in the condensation of the initial steam boils a second load of water, using energy more efficiently and effectively doubling the output. The device also captures formerly dissolved air released during the heating of the water and reintroduces it to the steam, creating aerated distillate and reducing the "boiled" taste. In 1863 an Amendment to the Passengers Act of 1855 declared that passenger ships were allowed to reduce the amount of fresh water they carried if they had a desalinator of the Normandy or the rival Winchester-Graveley design.

Normandy still
Normandy's water still, illustrated in his patent

Normandy's Patent Marine Aerated Fresh Water Co. was incorporated in 1858. After a few years it moved to a large building near Victoria Docks, which finally closed in 1910. During the later years of his life Normandy clashed with the directors and shareholders of the company due to his only assigning the GB patent to the company but retaining the US patent himself, forcing the company to use him personally as a sales agent for distribution overseas. His sons, however continued with the company. Alphonse's son Frank Normandy wrote what was probably the first book on desalination - A Practical Manual on Sea Water Distillation, which is held in our collections at 08767.aa.5, or 628.16 3395.


A surviving Normandy distiller has been found at Fort Zachary Taylor, Key West.

Normandy held many other patents, of which the most notable was hardening soap with sodium sulphate (GB9081/1841). He kept a private laboratory and taught chemistry. He was elected a fellow of the Chemical Society (now the Royal Society of Chemistry) and council member, and was a member of the Royal Institution.

In 1855 he was one of several chemists, doctors and activists to testify to the Select Committee of the House of Commons on food adulteration, a series of hearings that scandalised the British public and led to the first laws against it, although the fight would not truly succeed until much later in the century. Normandy reported that practically all the bread sold in London had been adulterated with alum to make it whiter and to absorb water and bulk it out. He described adulteration of various other foods, in particular the adulteration of coffee with chicory and beer with the neurotoxic tropical plant cocculus indicus. He also briefly described the grossly unhygienic conditions of many London dairies. Ironically, his hardened soap had been banned from sale for some years because the Excise considered the process to be adulteration, which was brought up during the Committee discussion.  

Cruikshank drinkers
Image from "The House that Jack Built" by George Cruikshank, 1853


In 1850 he wrote A Commercial Hand Book of Chemical Analysis (shelved here at 1143.h.26), a very interesting book covering most chemicals that were used or sold industrially at the time, and various procedures to check for food adulteration. The book notably described early quantitative colorimetric assays of dyes and spices, and microscopic examination of flour to determine adulteration with other products.

Further reading:
Birkett, J and Radcliffe, 2014, D. Normandy's Patent Marine Aerated Fresh Water Company: a family business for 60 years, 1851-1910. IDA Journal of Desalination and Water Reuse, 6(1), pp.24-32. Available digitally in BL reading rooms.

House of Commons Reports from Committees, 1854-5, vol. 8, pp. 221-530. BS Ref 1. Also available digitally in BL reading rooms.