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58 posts categorized "Curiosity"

15 October 2019

New Scientist Live 2019

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New Scientist Live 2019 logo
On Friday 11th October, I went to the New Scientist Live show, which is an annual event for the general public about the wonders of science. There are a series of lecture slots, and an exhibition from universities, learned societies, technology companies, commercial and charitable science "experience" organisation, and makers of science-related ornaments and clothing.

The talks I attended were all very interesting. Tom Crawford of Tom Rocks Maths described his work modelling the flows of rivers into oceans as a means of tracking plastics and other forms of pollution, to find the best places to collect them. The flows are controlled primarily by the Earth's rotation, outflow speed, and the density of the river water relevant to the sea.


Sim Singhrao of the University of Central Lancashire described her work on the possible contribution of poor oral hygiene to Alzheimer's disease. The bacterium Porphyromonas gingivalis, which contribures to gum disease, has been found in the brain of Alzheimer's patients, and it is suggested that Alzheimer's disease may be worsened by the action of the immune system in the brain, or protein fragments left behind when the bacteria feed.


Jess Wade of Imperial College, who works on organic semiconducting materials which can be used in products such as flexible displays, gave a lecture on chirality in science, from Louis Pasteur's discovery of optical isomerism in tartaric acid to biological effects, to the possible origins of chirality in polarisation of starlight due to the rotation of galaxies, to chiral selection of electron spin and the role it may play in our nervous system.


Guillermo Rein of Imperial College described the wide range of work involved in fire science, from fires aboard NASA spacecraft, to how polymers burn, to how large buildings can survive fire without structural failure, to the problem of long-lasting peat fires and the severe air pollution that they cause in South-East Asia. His work has not just been theoretical, but has included spectacularly large experiments in both the Czech Republic and Indonesia.


Finally, Ravi Gogna of BAE described work to improve information sharing between police, social workers, health care, and schools to improve child protection and allow problems to be dealth with without heavy-handed interventions. The technology was originally used to raise flags for fraud in financial institutions.

13 September 2019

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

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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

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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.

09 May 2019

Perfecting the Writing Machine: Blind and Visible Writing Typewriters

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Newspaper advert for Remington typewriter
From Lloyd's List 13th January 1883, shelfmark LOU.LD21

Among the exhibits in our Writing: Making Your Mark exhibition is this advertisement for a "Remington Perfected Typewriter". Guest blogger James Inglis, from the University of St Andrews and the National Museum of Scotland, wrote this guest post for us on how far it was from "perfected".

In 1878, American sewing machine and gun manufacturers E. Remington and Sons released the Remington Standard No. 2. Often regarded as the first commercially successful writing machine, the No. 2 Typewriter incorporated many features of typewriters that we are familiar with today. The No. 2 was the first machine to use a shift mechanism; based on patents by Lucian S. Crandall and Byron Brooks in 1875, this allowed the user to change between upper and lower-case letters. The No. 2 also showcased a QWERTYUIOP keyboard, which was first introduced on Remington’s Sholes and Glidden Type-Writer released in 1874. Today the QWERTY keyboard is ubiquitous across computers and smart devices.

The No. 2 Typewriter was followed by the Perfected No. 2 Typewriter in 1879, which ironed out some of the technical bugs with the original design. Adverts for the Remington Perfected Typewriter proudly stated that “it is to the pen what the sewing machine is to the needle”, reinforcing Remington’s role in the development of sewing machines and typewriters. The No. 2 Typewriter was so successful that Remington continued manufacture for 16 years. By the time the No. 2 typewriter was withdrawn in 1894 almost 100,000 machines had been sold: it was easily the most successful typewriter up to that point. 

Yet for all its success, there was one glaring problem with the Remington Perfected Typewriter. This was a drawback that beset all Remington typewriters in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The No. 2 was a blind writing typewriter. In other words, the writing was not visible as you were typing it!
To understand the blind writing typewriter design, the images below show a No. 2 Typewriter from the National Museum of Scotland’s collection. The carriage of the No. 2 Typewriter is raised to reveal the circular arrangement of typebars known as the typebasket. At the end of each typebar are letters, numbers or symbols cast in relief. Each typebar carries two characters which are selected by using the shift key. Upon pressing a particular key, a system of wires pulls the corresponding typebar upwards, out of the typebasket so that it comes into contact with the inked ribbon directly beneath the underside of the platen (the roller around which the paper is wrapped). The pressure of the typebar through the ribbon leaves an imprint on the paper and the character is formed!

A Victorian typewriter sitting on a desk
Remington No. 2 Typewriter manufactured c. 1887. Held at National Museum of Scotland’s Collection Centre. Object reference T.1960.34.

The problem is that when the carriage is lowered the typebars are concealed. The characters are formed on the underside of the platen, out of the operator’s sight. The typist can only see what is written three or four lines later, once the platen has rotated around enough to reveal their previous work.

Side view of Victorian typewriter
Remington No. 2 with carriage raised revealing the inked ribbon and type-bar basket. Object reference, T.1960.34
Close-up image of typewriter mechanism showing circle of type bars below ribbon
View from above showing how the typebars strike the ribbon from below

The video below show how pressing the keys lifts the typebars out of the typebasket and brings them into contact with the ribbon.

For inexperienced typists the amusing results of this drawback were illustrated in the article ‘The Type-Writer and Type-Writing’ published in The Girl’s Own Paper on August 18th, 1888. The article describes how, “During the first week or two the learner’s attempts will probably be something like the following”:  

Sample of typewritten text showing two lines superimposed
Type sample of an inexperienced typist, from an article in The Girl’s Own Paper, Saturday, August 18, 1888, BL shelfmark P.P.5993.w.

The fourth line is particularly bemusing and is caused by the operator typing straight over the previous sentence. Clearly, the typist did not return the carriage correctly in order to start a new line. These kinds of mistakes went unnoticed because the text was completely out of sight.
Yet the common argument was that a properly trained typist shouldn’t need to be able to see their work. A contemporary account of typewriters from Encyclopedia Britannica insisted:


Doubtless the novice who is learning the keyboard finds a natural satisfaction in being able to see at a glance that he has struck the key he was aiming at, but to the practical operator it is not a matter of great moment whether the writing is always in view or whether it is only to be seen by moving the carriage, for he should little need to test the accuracy of his performance by constant inspection as the piano player needs to look at the notes to discover whether he has struck the right one.


The reality of course was somewhat different, and typists of all levels found ways of getting around the problems with blind writing typewriters. The most popular solution was to stop and check on the progress of writing. Typewriters like the No. 2 came with carriages that could be raised and lowered on a hinge for basic operations such as loading the paper and changing the ribbon.
 
The film below, courtesy of British Pathé, shows a typing pool from around 1905. The typists regularly lift the carriage on the typewriters to check on their work.

Raising and lowering the carriage to check what was typed became a routine part of a typist’s work. While this got around the problem of writing visibility this technique was highly inefficient. As typewriter chronicler and inventor Henry Charles Jenkins commented in a paper to the Society of Arts in 1894:  


The Remington, Caligraph, Smith-Premier, Densmore, and Yost machines all have means by which the paper carrier or holder can be turned over upon some kind of hinge, and the writing, which has been performed under and out of sight, is brought into view. Operators get used to this, that they scarcely know how often they do it, but it must consume much time.


Unsurprisingly, rival typewriter manufacturers developed machines where the writing was always visible. The first visible writing typewriter was the Horton released in 1883. A circular introducing the Horton announced: “In the Horton Typewriter has been fully attained… the invaluable object of having all the writing, to the last word, visible to the eye of the operator”. Of the many individuals this will benefit the advert claimed:

It will especially commend itself to those, such as clergymen, journalists and writers generally, who use writing machines in original composition. In the use of machines in which the writing is out of sight much time is necessarily lost in turning up the printing cylinder to get at the run of a sentence construction of which has escaped from the memory; and then, when this has been ascertained and the printing cylinder turned down again, the last word is perhaps forgotten before the rest of the sentence has been formed in the mind, so that the printing cylinder has to be turned up a second time before the writer is able to make any further progress.

Advertisement for Horton Typewriter, "The most perfect writing machine in the world"
Preliminary circular for the Horton typewriter c. 1885

Despite these benefits, the Horton achieved very little success and it was not until the 1890s that visible writing typewriters gained much popularity. One particularly successful machine was the Oliver. The Oliver used U-shaped typebars that struck down on the paper from the right and the left. The video below shows an Oliver Visible No. 3 manufactured in 1904.

 

The machine that changed the state of the play more than any other was the Underwood. Invented by Franz Xavier Wagner in 1892, and manufactured by the Wagner Typewriter Company, this machine has been described as “the first truly modern typewriter”. In 1895, the patent rights were bought by John T. Underwood, marking the birth of the Underwood Typewriter Company. The Underwood was a front-strike typewriter. That is, the typebars hit the front of the platen leaving the text in full view of the operator.

Underwood typewriter on a desk
Underwood Typewriter manufactured c. 1905. Held at the National Museum of Scotland’s Collection Centre. Object reference, T.1934.212

Finally, in 1908 Remington brought out its own front-strike, fully visible typewriter: the Remington Model 10.  The perfected, Perfected Typewriter you might say.

In an advertising pamphlet titled ‘Miss Remington Explains the New Model No. 10’, Miss Remington assures readers: “Yes, I am using one of the new No. 10 Remington Models, and I never supposed that it would be possible to combine so many good things in one machine.”

A young woman in Edwardian office costume points to a typewriter on a table
‘Miss Remington explains the New Model No. 10 Typewriter’ c. 1908. An advertising pamphlet held at the National Museum of Scotland’s Collection Centre.

Yet Miss Remington makes no mention of the move from the blind writing, up-strike design of the Remington no. 9; to the front-strike visible writing set-up of the Model 10, which was arguably the biggest change in design since the introduction of the shift key 30 years earlier. Instead, Miss Remington makes vague comments such as “It has all the splendid points that my old Remington had and a dozen others that no writing machine has ever had.”

By 1908, the Remington Typewriter Company had been supporting their blind writing typewriter design for over a quarter of a century. While market pressures forced the company to change to the new and more popular visible writing system, it was too much of a climb down for Remington to admit that the old blind writing typewriters they had promoted and sold for so long, were far from perfect!

Sources
Michael H. Adler, The Writing Machine. London: Allen & Unwin, 1973. BL shelfmark X.620/7108
https://www.antikeychop.com/

James Inglis, The University of St Andrews and the National Museum of Scotland

Posted by Philip Eagle, Subject Librarian STM

Copyright James Inglis, posted by the British Library under a Creative Commons CC-BY-NC license. All illustrations are copyright James Inglis or public domain.

08 March 2019

How Embryologists See: Anne McLaren’s Mouse Models

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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 2019.

What does an embryo look like? You’ve probably seen pictures –photos of clumps of tiny little cells, most likely taken of a petri dish in a lab. But embryologists face many barriers when bringing these miniscule cells into vision. The developmental biologist Dr Anne McLaren found ways around some of these problems starting with her work in the 1950s.   

In 1952, the mammalian developmental biologist Dr Anne McLaren moved to UCL to begin conducting a series of experiments intended to transplant mouse embryos from the uterus of one mother to the uterus of another, foster, mother – a technique called embryo transfer. There were several reasons for her wanting to do this, but the central one was a problem of vision. She wanted to make the embryos visible. As she explained in 1960,

Experimental embryology in mammals starts with a grave and obvious disadvantage compared to experimental embryology in, say, frogs or sea-urchins - namely the relative inaccessibility of the mammalian embryo. On the other hand it is a subject of particular interest, not only because man himself, and most of his domesticated animals, are mammals, but also because the mammalian embryo goes through almost all the critical stages of development in the most intimate contact with a genetically different organism, its mother.

This intimate relationship between the embryo and its mother in the very early stages of implantation, and the potential applicability of these insights to other mammals, like humans, made this an important area of study. This relationship also represented a prime example of McLaren’s central research interest, namely how the gene and environment interact in development. In the mammal, the maternal uterus crucially provides the environment in which the genes have to exert their effects. This is why maternal effects on inherited characters are of particular interest to McLaren.


At school we are often taught that development looks something like this,

The stages of human embryo development from ovum to foetus.
Illustration: human fertilization and embryogenesis. With kind permission of Gaurab Karki, at www.onlinebiologynotes.com


McLaren saw things differently. Although the embryo could indeed develop into a foetus and a baby, this was only under particular circumstances, in a given environment. McLaren wanted to better understand what was required of this environment for the embryo to develop into a healthy mouse. Development could also go wrong, and it was certainly not as simple as the expression of a set of genes against a neutral backdrop. In fact, she believed that the whole concept of a gene meant fairly little without an adequate account of the environment through which they were expressed. 

 

‘This image has been removed due to expiry of the copyright licence. 'The Bucket Model and When Causes Interact,’ are from The Mirage of a Space Between Nature and Nurture, Evelyn Keller Fox, pp. 8-9, Copyright, 2010, Duke University Press. All rights reserved. Republished by permission of the copyright holder. www.dukeupress.edu



But the problem of being able to see this environment remained. Although she could not look directly inside the womb, McLaren realised that instead she could make the interactions taking place between the embryo and the uterus visible. This was made possible by a phenomenon that had been noticed with the number of lumbar vertebrae, the vertebra starting after the last rib attachment and running down to the last vertebra not sacralised, in the offspring of reciprocal crosses between two strains of mouse. In Problems of Egg Transfer in Mice (1955), she explained,

We suspect the existence of a maternal effect whenever reciprocal crosses are made between two genetically differing strains or varieties, if the progeny differs according to which strain was taken as the maternal parent, and which the paternal. …In species hybrids between the horse and the donkey, the mule, which has a horse mother and a donkey father, differs in a number of respects from the hinny, which has the donkey mother and the horse father. One difference lies in the number of lumbar vertebrae that the animals have. Most mules have 6 lumbar vertebrae, like their mothers; while most hinnies have 5 lumbar vertebrae, again like their mothers.

Another example of this effect observed in mules by John Hammond and Arthur Walton in 1938, was the case of lumbar vertebrae in mice. E. L. Green and W. L. Russel, working at Bar Harbor in New York in 1943, noticed such a phenomenon, a suspected maternal effect on lumbar vertebrae in mice, but their experiments had been stopped short by a fire in their laboratory. The effect presented McLaren with an observable trait that was definitely not just due to chromosomal sex linkage, because the difference also appeared in female progeny of the crossed strains, who of course carry two of the same X chromosome. Even through the trait was not sex-linked, it could still be determined either by the cytoplasm of the egg or the uterine environment that the mother provides. The case thus provided a specific instance of the question of the respective roles of gene and environment in the inheritance of an observable trait. The best way of distinguishing between these contributions, she decided, would be by transferring eggs between females of the two strains, “since such eggs would have the cytoplasm of one strain but the uterine environment of the other” (Research Talk, 1953). If the influence was exerted through the cytoplasm, the young would be unaltered in phenotype by the transfer; but if it was exerted through the uterine environment, the reciprocal difference would be reversed.

Sketch showing an ovum being influenced by either its genotype or the environment.
Image: Is it the uterus or the egg affecting the number of vertebrae of the mice? Copyright estate of Anne McLaren MS89202/12


Embryo transfer techniques had been around for a while – in fact, the pioneer of the technique, Walter Heape had used the technique as early as 1890, to show the exact opposite of what McLaren suspected was the case with lumbar vertebrae – namely that the uterus had absolutely no effect on the developing embryo. As their experiments progressed, McLaren and her then husband and collaborator Donald Michie showed that the uterus, in the case of lumbar vertebrae, did exert an effect on the embryo. The mice in the surrogate uterus expressed the trait of the surrogate, not the genetic mother.  There was something in the maternal uterus, not the cytoplasm, that effected the number of lumbar vertebrae. By the end of the experiment she was not able to determine exactly how  this effect was exerted but, she reflected in 1985, the message of the experiment was clear,

As to how this influence is exerted, from the physiological point of view, we are so far in complete ignorance. But the general moral for the geneticist, I think, is clear: that is, when we are dealing with mammals we must be prepared to extend our picture of the genetic control of morphogenetic processes, to envisage their regulation not only by the action of the embryo's genes, but also by the action of the genes of the maternal organism in which the embryo is gestated

Turning cauliflowers into mice: mouse model growing pains 

As might be expected with such a new technique, it took a while to perfect it, to be able to produce standardised results. In the process, McLaren began to see some unusual things. Indeed, during the early days of the experiments, McLaren and Michie were worried about the appearance of some the fertilised ova being produced by the donor female after they’d administered the hormones to induce ovulation. In a research talk from 1953, McLaren recounts,

During the Summer of last year, we were using two-day eggs only; and one day, actually the day we were rejoicing because for the first time we’d got transferred eggs to develop into mice, our 2-day eggs, instead of looking like normal mouse eggs with 4 or 8 distinct spherical blastomeres, suddenly began to look like cauliflowers. The blastomeres coalesced, and the eggs looked awful.

She goes on,

From that day onward, all their eggs looked like that, and as it seemed obvious that something looking like a cauliflower couldn’t develop into a mouse, we didn’t even bother to transplant many of them, but spent much fruitless effort trying to find the cause of the trouble. However, we’ve now got over this difficulty, partly because by using 3-day eggs, which look quite normal, as well as 2-day eggs; partly because this Summer only some of our 2-day eggs looked like cauliflowers; and partly because we’ve got some evidence that cauliflowers can in fact develop into mice.

These pages from McLaren’s lab notebooks show how she tested different variables, like the PH of the medium in the dish before transfer to the foster mother, or the daylight to which embryos were being exposed. She obtained some strange shapes in the process.

Image of written lines in a notebook
Strange cauliflower shapes. Detail from Anne McLaren’s ‘UCL Embryo Transfer’ laboratory notebook, 1953-1956. Copyright estate of Anne McLaren (Add MS 83843).
Image of written lines in a notebook
‘Ghosts’, or disappearing, eggs. Detail from Anne McLaren’s ‘UCL Embryo Transfer’ laboratory notebook, 1953-1956. Copyright estate of Anne McLaren (Add MS 83843).
Image of written lines in a notebook.
A healthy blastocyst (Cells differentiated into cell layers, preceding the embryo stage) –‘hooray’! Detail from Anne McLaren’s ‘UCL Embryo Transfer’ laboratory notebook, 1953-1956. Copyright estate of Anne McLaren (Add MS 83843).

McLaren was discovering new things about the ways in which embryos could develop, and she didn’t always understand what was going on. The appearance of these cauliflowers in development point to the limited view she was getting. It remained difficult to visualise what was going on at these early stages inside the maternal uterus, and the best the embryologist could do was to set up an limited model of the process, to bring to the fore some of the phenomena she was interested in. But biological models, unlike the ones we draw or build out of inanimate material, don’t always comply. Moreover, the view was always partial, and in this case especially limited because all she could do was move her embryos between uteri –about which she knew very little. The only way of knowing more about the uterus would be by intervening in this environment, changing it in some ways and observing the effects this had on the developing embryo which was impossible while the womb remained inaccessible.  As we shall see, McLaren soon went on to develop another window that would allow her to visualise more directly the forces acting on the embryo during development. 

From wombs to dishes

As far as her interest in making the interactions between uterus and embryo visible was concerned, McLaren had definitely succeeded. She had done this by intervening in the biological process of gestation, by moving an embryo from one mother to another and observing the effects it had on the developing embryo. As we have just seen, this technique threw up obstacles and limitations. The cauliflower effect was just one example of a malformation that McLaren was unable to explain because she had little idea about what the uterine environment was made of. She could not figure out the exact mechanisms by which the uterus acted on the embryo because, in order to do this, she would have to play around with them like she had with the medium in the dish prior to transfer, to isolate different variables until she could figure out what factors were at work. She would have to manipulate to be able to see. At the same time, however, McLaren was developing a very promising technique that could provide the solution – the technique of embryo culture. Writing in 1958, she mentioned a method by which egg transfer enables the experiment to influence the environment of the early mouse embryo directly, instead of through the medium of the mother or the other embryos. In collaboration with Dr. Biggers, I have been culturing 8-16 cell mouse embryos according to the technique of Whitten, on Krebs bicarbonate with glucose and bovine plasma albumen added. In two days at 37 [symbol: degrees], nearly 100% of such embryos reach the blastocyst stage, a development which in vivo takes only one day. I then transferred these blastocysts to the uteri of pregnant female recipients, and found that their viability relative to that of control blastocysts had been in no way impaired by the culture treatment….So far we have done no more than demonstrate the feasibility of the technique; but it seems to me that a study of the effects upon subsequent development of variation in the conditions of culture and the constitution of the culture medium, might provide yet another means to overcome the inaccessibility of the mammalian embryo…

Embryos in dishes would allow McLaren to figure out the conditions needed for normal embryonic development. When she and John Biggers (1958) later showed that a mouse embryo after being cultured outside the womb for over 24 hours, could be replaced in the uterus of a mouse mother and develop into a normal healthy mouse, they had pathed the way for In Vitro Fertilisation in humans that would become a reality 20 years later. IVF, a technique that changed the field of embryology as well as society at large, was just one of the offshoots of McLaren’s explorations of gene-environment interactions.

Marieke Bigg
Ph.D candidate, University of Cambridge

Further reading:

McLaren, Anne, and J. D. Biggers. 1958. ‘Successful Development and Birth of Mice Cultivated in Vitro as Early Embryos.’ Nature 182 (September): 877.
McLaren, Anne. 1958, 1960. Experimental studies on the effect of the prenatal environment. 
McLaren, Anne. 1985. An effect of the uterine environment. 

Marieke Bigg is a Ph.D candidate at the University of Cambridge. After completing a B.A. Honors in comparative literature at the University of Amsterdam, she obtained an M.Phil in sociology from the University of Cambridge. In her current PhD research, which she conducts under the supervision of Professor Sarah Franklin, she draws on the biography of Anne McLaren to map the debates on human embryo research in Britain in the 1980s, and proposes new models for policy-making in the area of human fertilisation and embryology today. She is funded by the Wellcome Trust.

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28 February 2019

A visit to the Joint Library of Ophthalmology at Moorfields Eye Hospital

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A painting of an eye with round swollen white lesions on the cornea.
Eye painting by an unknown artist from the Moorfields collection, digitised by UCL. Used under a CC-BY Creative Commons license.


Yesterday Philip went on a CILIP-sponsored visit to the Joint Library of Ophthalmology at Moorfields Eye Hospital.

The library is joint between the NHS trust responsible for Moorfields and the UCL Institute for Ophthalmology. The hospital was opened in 1805 in Charterhouse Square as the Dispensary for Curing Diseases of the Eye and Ear. The driving reason for this was the number of soldiers who were returning from the Napoleonic wars in North Africa with what was known as “Egyptian Ophthalmia”, now recognised as trachoma. The founders were John Cunningham Saunders and Dr. John Richard Farre. In 1810 a medical school was opened and alumni were responsible for opening ophthalmic hospitals in other parts of the world. In 1821 the hospital was moved to Lower Moorfields near what is now the Broadgate office complex and renamed the London Ophthalmic Infirmary, although it quickly became popularly known as “Moorfields”. In 1837 it achieved royal patronage and became known as the Royal London Ophthalmic Hospital. In 1897 the hospital moved to its current site in City Road after the Moorfields site became overcrowded. In 1947 the hospital merged with the Royal Westminster Ophthalmic Hospital and Central London Ophthalmic Hospital, and the name officially became Moorfields. A green line is painted on the pavement from Old Street tube station to the hospital main entrance, to help partially-sighted people find their way.

The Institute of Ophthalmology was founded in 1948, initially on the site of the former Central London Ophthalmic Hospital in Judd Street. It became part of UCL in 1995.

The library now includes items from all the predecessor organisations, and as it is considered a national subject collection no material is disposed of. Much of the journal collection was donated in exchange for the content being indexed in either the British Journal of Ophthalmology or Ophthalmic Literature. There are 7000 books, 63 currently subscribed journals, and 250 journals which are no longer published. There are over 280 CDs or DVDs. The library currently keeps paper subscriptions when possible due to concerns about loss of access due to subscription cancellation or technical obsolescence – many of the CDs or DVDs cannot be used due to outdated software requirements. Most of the material is on open shelf apart from the rarer collections. The rarer material consists of 1500 books and pamphlets, many of which have been digitised by the Wellcome Institute and are included in the Wellcome online digital library. There is also a unique collection of 1700 painted images of healthy and pathological eyes. Many of the earlier eye paintings were by the sisters Mary and Alicia Boole, who were daughters of George Boole of Boolean logic fame. They were mathematicians in their own right and many of their siblings and the following generation had notable achievements in science and art. Later twentieth century paintings were created by the talented medical artist Terry Tarrant. The paintings have been digitised by UCL .The rare books include copies of John Dalrymple’s 1834 “Anatomy of the Human Eye”, the first ophthalmic textbook in English, and the “Atlas of Ophthalmoscopy” by Richard Liebreich, inventor of the ophthalmoscope.

There is a photographic collection of patients and their conditions, often “before and after” treatment. This includes an interesting dimension in terms of Victorian attitudes to privacy and personal identification – many poorer patients had their full names given, while more middle or upper-class patients are identified only by given names or initials. There is also a collection of bound notes on patients back to 1877.

Finally, there is a “museum” collection of artifacts. Many of them are originally from the Institute of Ophthalmology. They include eye testing equipment, ophthalmoscopes, surgical instruments and microscopes. Particularly unusual exhibits include an ivory leech holder used to apply leeches to the area around the eye to treat glaucoma, and a pair of prism spectacles that redirect the vision downwards through ninety degrees, to allow patients forced to lie flat on their backs to read more easily.

The library still serves an audience of predominantly medical students and practitioners. They do a lot of training on databases and library inductions. They lend the majority of the material and there are self-service lending/returning terminals. They also do inter-library loan.

Other activities include doing systematic reviews and helping people with basic IT skills.

There are 32 satellite sites with electronic resources only.

Last year the library achieves Platinum status in the Green Impact scheme for environmentalism in libraries, based around recycling and saving energy.

The whole institution is intended to move in a few years time to a new site in the St Pancras area.

23 January 2019

Lab notebooks - handwriting at the core of science

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McLaren notebook
Page from Anne McLaren's notebook (shelfmark Add MS 83844) covering embryo transfer experiments in mice, 1950s. (Copyright estate of Anne McLaren)


Today is World Handwriting Day, and we thought we’d pay our respects to the most important role handwriting plays in science, one which you might not have heard of if you aren’t a practicing scientist. This is the “lab notebook”, a scientist’s daily diary of all their experiments, thoughts, and other scientific activities. Until relatively recently, these were always handwritten, as they were meant to record what, in detail, someone was doing as they did it. Waiting to create them until work was finished caused too much risk of forgetting or distorting something.


Lab notebooks grew out of the personal diaries and notebooks of individual researchers. Some notebooks by well-known scientists have become Library treasures in their own right. One of the most famous works in our Treasures of the British Library exhibition is the Codex Arundel, a collection of notes written by Leonardo da Vinci (although probably not in the order they were bound) in the sixteenth century. At the other extreme of history, the Treasures Gallery currently displays the biologist Anne McLaren's lab book on embryo transfer in mice. Outside the BL, most of the lifelong field and theoretical notebook collections of Charles Darwin are digitised and available online, as are some of Albert Einstein's most significant theoretical notebooks. At the other end of accessibility, some of the lab notebooks of Marie and Pierre Curie, held by the National Library of France, are reported to still be so radioactive that they are not safe to handle without protective clothing.


Laboratory notebooks later became an even more important record of exactly what was done, as lone researchers were replaced by academic and private-sector research groups, science and technology became ever-more important to society, and scientists were expected to describe their methods in detail so that they could be replicated and turned into innovative technologies, materials and treatments. Additionally, until quite recently, American patent law worked on a “first to invent” basis whereby the person who could prove that they had the idea for an invention first, or their employer, had the right to a patent. Laboratory notebooks were the main source of evidence for this. In recent years, scientific misconduct has become a higher-profile issue, as scientists worry about a “replicability crisis” where too many uncertain or exaggerated results have been published. Lab books help prove that the work was done as the researchers claim, or the detail expected in them make discrepancies easier to recognise. And the notebooks of eminent scientists are a rich source for scientific historians.


By the latter part of the twentieth century, some organisations had very detailed instructions for how laboratory notebooks should be completed and stored. Lab books had to be written exactly as the work was carried out, or as soon as possible – no jotting notes on scraps of paper and writing them up at the end of the day. Notebooks were considered the property of the employer or the university, and could not be removed from the lab. And they had to be clearly paginated with no chance of pages being removed or replaced.


Many laboratories still use paper notebooks, due to the ease of simply writing notes down as you go. In many types of science, electronic devices are at risk of being exposed to spillages or damaging electromagnetic conditions, or are simply unwieldy. Some researchers also like to keep their detailed records to themselves instead of sharing them with a group. Some research groups and organisations are now moving to electronic recording, but the lifetime of electronic data can be questionable due to failure to back up and the lifespan of media. Specifically-designed electronic laboratory data systems are more secure. They are more common in industry than academia, as academics are more independent and less likely to respond to top-down orders, and academic institutions can be less able to afford the necessary software and hardware. The advantages of electronic research notes systems are that you can save large amounts of original data directly into the system without retyping or printing it, clone records from earlier experiments to save time, search your records more easily, share data within the group easily, and track the history of records. Now data is often electronically recorded and can be directly copied into a laboratory system without a transcription stage. It is possible to use general project and collaboration software packages such as Evernote, SharePoint, or GoogleDrive but specifically-designed software is now available. 


In 2011, Gregory Lang and David Botstein published a scanned copy of the entire lab notebook covering the research leading to a paper on yeast genetics, as an attachment to their e-journal article.


Modern lab books rarely find their way into the British Library collection, but our most famous example is the collection of Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin (also including records of earlier experiments by his mentor Sir Almroth Wright). As well as the material by Anne McLaren mentioned earlier, we also have some material from the photography pioneer Henry Fox Talbot, electrical inventor David Edward Hughes, and biologist Marilyn Monk.

Sources and further reading:
Barker, K, At the bench: a laboratory navigator, Cold Spring Harbor: Cold Spring Harbor Press, 2005. pp. 89-99. Shelfmark YK.2005.b.1888
Baykoucheva, S. Managing scientific information and research data, Oxford: Chandos Publishing, 2015. Available electronically in British Library reading rooms.
Bird, CL, Willoughby, C and Frey JG, "Laboratory notebooks in the digital era: the role of ELNs in record keeping for chemistry and other sciences", Chemical Society reviews, 2013, 42(20), pp. 8157-8175. Shelfmark (P) JB 00-E(105) or 3151.550000.
Elliott, CA, "Experimental data as a source for the history of science", The American archivist, 1974, 37(1), pp. 27-35. Shelfmark Ac. 1668 or 0810.390000, also available electronically in British Library reading rooms.
Holmes, FL, "Laboratory notebooks: can the daily record illuminate the broader picture", Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 1990, 134(4), pp.349-366. Shelfmark Ac. 1830 or 6630.500000, also available electronically in British Library reading rooms.
Stanley, JT and Lewandowski, HJ, "Lab notebooks as scientific communication: investigating development from undergraduate courses to graduate research", Physical review: physics education research, 2016, 12, 020129, freely available online at https://journals.aps.org/prper/pdf/10.1103/PhysRevPhysEducRes.12.020129.
Williams, M, Bozyczko-Coyne, D, Dorsey, B and Larsen, S, "Appendix 2: Laboratory notebooks and data storage", in Gallager, SR and Wiley, EA, Eds. Current protocols essential laboratory techniques, Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2008. Shelfmark YK.2008.b.6299 or m09/.30081

18 December 2018

Arabic science manuscripts from the British Library

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Kitab al sirah
The beginning of Kitāb al-sīrah al-falsafīyah, an autobiographical treatise by the physician and philosopher Abū Bakr Muḥammad ibn Zakarīyā al-Rāzī (Add MS 7473, f. 1v)


Today is World Arabic Language Day, so here's a reminder of the scientific content in our Qatar Digital Library digitisation project. Our friends on the Asian and African Studies blog created two lists of major scientific works digitised in the collection, including Arabic versions of classical scientific texts, some of which were lost from Western European culture until the Renaissance, and original works by great early scientists of the Arabic-speaking world, such as Quṭb al-Dīn al-Shīrāzī, Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna), Ibn Haytham (Alhazen), and Abū Bakr Muḥammad ibn Zakarīyā al-Rāzī (Rhazes).

27 November 2018

Cats in science

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A photograph of a relaxed tabby cat facing the camera.
At the end of last week, our free exhibition "Cats on the Page" opened, covering cats in all their roles in fiction and art. Here are a few examples of the roles that cats have played in science.

The most famous cat in science, of course, is the notorious Schrödinger's Cat thought experiment, put forward by the physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935 to express what he thought were the truly bizarre implications of the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum physics. In this morally questionable experiment, a cat is sealed in a box with an apparatus that has a predictable probability, within a set time, of releasing cyanide gas and killing it, analogous to a subatomic particle which, until it interacts with another object, may be in one of a number of states with known probabilities. According to Schrödinger, when the probability of the cat being dead reaches 50%, it can be considered, so long as the box is not opened, to be simultaneously alive and dead. Schrödinger actually put this forward as a self-evidently ludicrous demonstation of how silly he thought that the Copenhagen interpretation was, but many physicists since have taken it entirely seriously, and single atoms or subatomic particles have been demonstrated in real-world experiments to behave as if they are in two states simultaneously.

There has been at least one recorded case of a cat being credited writer on a peer-reviewed scientific paper. In 1975, the physicist and mathematician Jack H Hethrington was irritated when a peer reviewer for Physical Review Letters pointed out that he had used "we" consistently in a manuscript on which he was the only credited author, and that the journal style guide would require this to be corrected to "I" throughout. Rather than rewrite the paper, Hethrington credited his cat, Chester, as the second author "F D C Willard", the "FD" coming from Felis domesticus and Willard from the name of Chester's father. In 1980 he published a popular science article under the name of Willard alone. In this case, it was reportedly motivated by disagreements between him and some co-authors, leading to them not wanting to credit it to any real person.

That example was not motivated by hostility, but stings based on exposing questionable degrees or dubious professional organisations by having animals "earn" qualifications have a long history. The first case seems to have taken place in 1967 when a Television Wales team investigating a bogus "English Association of Estate Agents and Valuers" successfully got them to appoint a cat named "Oliver Greenhalgh" as a fellow. British science writer Ben Goldacre has exposed the dubious nature of certain "nutritionist" qualifications by getting his cat a professional certification. To rub salt in, the cat had been dead for some time.

And finally, cats may some day have a role in protecting post-apocalyptic humans from our darker legacies if our technological civilisation collapses. A serious proposal has been made to genetically engineer cats to change colour or glow if they encounter radioactivity, and create a legend that they can detect evil, in order to prevent far-future peoples from unknowingly digging up still-hazardous nuclear waste dumps.

Posted by Philip Eagle (Subject Librarian - STM)

13 November 2018

The centenary of the 1918 flu pandemic

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A blonde woman in a white leotard contorts herself in apparent pain on a hospital bed, on a background of microscope images of cells.
A dancer in "Contagion", a piece memorialising the pandemic presented at the British Library earlier in November


This November sees not just the centenary of the end of the First World War, but the centenary of the peak of the influenza epidemic that came at its end. The 1918 flu epidemic may have killed fifty million people or more worldwide, over three times the number of people killed in the war. It is thought to have been the third worst disease epidemic ever in Europe, after the fourteenth-century Black Death and the sixth-century Plague of Justinian. 228,000 people died in the UK, with as many as a third of the population infected, although the death rate among those who fell ill was around 2.5%. 1918 was the first year since official records began that deaths in Britain outnumbered births. Epidemiological studies have shown that children whose mothers suffered flu during pregnancy suffered lifelong negative effects on their health and employment histories.

 The flu is still sometimes known as the Spanish Flu, although this is a misnomer that, even at the time, seriously upset the Spaniards. It was associated with Spain because Spain, being neutral in the war, had less media censorship than other European countries, so that the epidemic was more honestly reported. The first unambiguous cases of the pandemic broke out at a US Army base in Kansas in March 1918. The first worldwide wave continued through the spring and summer, but appeared to be no more problematic than ordinary flu. The second, far more lethal wave, occurred in September to December 1918, while a third, less serious wave took place in the first half of 1919.

However, some people have suggested that earlier outbreaks of disease may have been unrecognised early stages of the flu pandemic. Particular suspicion has been cast on an outbreak of a lung disease called at the time "purulent bronchities" which struck the Allied Powers' huge military camp at Etaples in France in early 1917, and a lethal epidemic of lung infection which hit the region of Shansi in China in the winter of 1917-8, although that was believed by local authorities at the time, and many scientists to this day, to have been pneumonic plague.

A major question, especially given the possibility of further flu pandemics in the future, is what made the 1918 virus so lethal. As well as the sheer number of fatalities, it was unusual in killing young and healthy people in large numbers, rather than those who were elderly or frail. Some people have blamed the physical and psychological stresses of the war, and in particular the long-term effects of chemical warfare, for this, but young people also died in countries which were barely affected by the war. It has been suggested that healthy people died because of a phenomenon known as "cytokine storm", where the influenza infection causes the immune system to go into such a state of extreme activity that it itself causes fatal damage to the lungs. This is more likely to happen in people with healthier immune systems, although recent work has suggested that it might be more likely in people with a specific genetic condition in which the first stage of immune response, involving the production of interferon, is unusually weak.

In 2005, the genetic code of the 1918 virus was sequenced from samples taken from the body of a woman buried in Alaska, which had been partly preserved by the cold climate. This indicated that the 1918 virus was a member of the "H1" type of flue virii. That gave rise to a new theory about the higher death rate among young people - for the previous thirty years the majority of influenza circulating worldwide had been of the "H3" type, so older people may have been more likely to have encountered H1 influenza before and had more immunity to it.

Another mystery is why the 1918 pandemic had so little apparent cultural impact at the time. The most famous deaths from the virus were the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, the artist Egon Schiele (along with his wife Edith, who was pregnant with their first child), and John McCrae, author of one of the most famous poems of WWI remembrance, "In Flanders Fields". It also had a wider historical impact. Some military historians argue that the last major German offensive in 1918 failed only because of flu among the soldiers. The British prime minister David Lloyd George nearly died, although this was covered up at the time. The Versailles Treaty might potentially have been less harsh on Germany, reducing the chances of WWII, if the US President, Woodrow Wilson, had not been incapacitated with the flu during the later part of the negotiations. And the death of the leading USSR politician and administrator Yakov Sverdlov has been said to have opened up an opportunity for Josef Stalin to begin his rise to power. Some suggest that the influenza was not seen by people in general as a separate catastrophe from the war, while others have argued that, despite the death toll, it was seen as "just the flu" in an era when death from infectious disease was still much more common than it is today.

Further reading:

Honigsbaum, M. Living with Enza. London: Macmillan: 2009. Shelfmark YC.2009.a.3229 or m08/.36952
Johnson, N. Britain and the 1918-19 influenza pandemic (Routledge studies in the social history of medicine no. 23). Abingdon: Routledge, 2006. Shelfmark YC.2007.a.11206 or 8026.519925 no. 23
Ministry of Health. Report of the pandemic of influenza 1918-19, Reports on public health and medical subjects, 1920, No. 4. Shelfmarks B.S. 17/1, (P) HF 00-E(18), or 7665.590000
Spinney, L. Pale rider. London: Jonathan Cape, 2017. Shelfmark YC.2018.a.7038, or available in British Library Reading Rooms as Legal Deposit e-Book.

Posted by Philip Eagle