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34 posts categorized "Environmental science"

13 May 2020

Diarists and diaries

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Three manuscript volumes, two open, one closed with a logo showing a dragon on the front.
Diary in the 17th century: The autograph manuscripts of John Evelyn's Diary  Copyright © The British Library Board

‘But one shower of rain all this month.’ - entered John Evelyn in his diary on 29th April 1681. What would you write about April 2020 in your diary?
 
John Evelyn (1620–1706) is one of the best-known English diarists. He is known as a diarist but he was also a scholar, a botanist, a landscape gardener, author and one of the founding members of ‘The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge' (est. 1660).
 
An engraving of a white-haired man in academic dress, holding a large leather-bound book
Diarist: John Evelyn (31 October 1620 â€“ 27 February 1706) Copyright © The British Library Board

Unbeknown to him, Evelyn was also a chronicler of climatic change. His weather notes provide us with data on the period dubbed as the Little Ice Age in Europe.
In his diary he noted numerous extreme weather events. The first reference in 1636: ‘This year being extremely dry’, continued later with extreme cold winters when the Thames froze over for weeks, extreme heat, and extreme wind including hurricanes, and unseasonal weather at various times of the year. 
1st January 1684
The weather continuing intolerably severe, streets of booths were set upon the Thames ; the air was so very cold and thick, as for many years there had not been the like. The small-pox was very mortal.
 
9th January 1684
I went cross the Thames on the ice, now become so thick as to bear not only streets of booths, in which they roasted meat, and had divers shops of wares, quite across as in a town, but coaches, carts and horses passed over.
 
11th August 1695
The weather now so cold, that greater frosts were not always seen in the midst of winter ; this succeeded much wet and set harvest extremely back.
Unlike most weather diarists, Evelyn did not take daily notes but focused on the unexpected. There are three years of exceptionally high number of weather notes in Evelyn’s diary: 1684, 1695 and 1696.  His comparative notes on the weather makes him stand out of weather diarists. 
25th June 1652
After a drought of near four months, there fell so violent a tempest of hail, rain, wind, thunder and lightning, as no man had seen the like in this age ; the hail being in some places four or five inches about, brake all the glass about London especially at Deptford, and more at Greenwich.
 
21st January 1671
This year the weather was so wet, stormy, and unseasonable, as had not been known for many years.
 
21st April 1689
This was one of the most seasonable springs, free form the usual sharp east winds that I have observed since the year 1660 (the year of the Restoration), which was much such as one.
Despite his longitudinal view of how the actual weather compared with previous years of his lifetime, he did not engage with weather forecasting. He took notice, however, of the relationship between weather conditions and health (epidemiology) issues, in line with The Royal Society’s priorities.
 
Keeping a weather diary in the second part of the 17th century was not unusual. In fact, The Royal Society encouraged it. One of the earliest histories of The Royal Society (1667) gives an account of how Christopher Wren’s (architect, another founding member of The Royal Society) initiated the study of the ‘history of seasons’ as the priority of the Royal Society.
The Second Work which he [Wren] has advanced, is the History of Seasons: which will be of admirable benefit to Mankind, if it shall be constantly pursued, and deriv'd down to Posterity. His proposal therefore was, to comprehend a Diary of Wind, Weather, and other conditions of the Air, as to Heat, Cold, and Weight; and also a General Description of the Year, whether contagious or healthful to Men or Beasts; with an Account of Epidemical Diseases, of Blasts, Mill-dews, and other accidents, belonging to Grain, Cattle, Fish, Fowl, and Insects.
Thomas Sprat (1667:315-6)
The Royal Society published a detailed description to support weather monitoring: 'A METHOD For making a History of the Weather by Mr. Hook’ (Sprat 1667:175-182)
The Royal Academy's stamped bookplate, showing their coat of arms in black and white
The bookplate of The Royal Society Note the Latin motto: Nullius in verba (Take nobody’s words for it)
Wren’s initiative is better understood in the context of extreme weather events and unusual seasons. Weather lore was not fully reliable for farmers and seamen any more. April showers did not necessarily happen – as Evelyn recorded in 1681. Finding out the laws and the cause of weather became a priority for a growing naval power. Evelyn, as an active member of the Royal Society, must have been aware of Wren’s initiative but did not follow any rigorous rules in his diary.  
 
Evelyn’s diary inspired scholars across disciplines over the last 400 years. One of them, J.M. Winn, M.D. (1848) - motivated by a severe winter in England in 1846 - extracted weather (and epidemiology) related entries from John Evelyn’s diary and concluded that Evelyn’s observations corroborated Howard Luke’s theory of a ‘cycle of seven years in the seasons of Britain’. Howard (see his work on clouds) made his theoretical proposition based on his own daily weather diary. Regardless of the accuracy of his conclusion, Winn recognized the value of Evelyn’s longitudinal dataset over a period of extraordinary climatic and social changes. Winn, similar to Wren and Evelyn himself, was keen to account for the link between extreme climatic and social events; a topic that has become part of our daily conversation as well this spring.
 
The British Library holds The John Evelyn Archive, a collection of his autograph diary, correspondence and related documents. This year marks John Evelyn’s 400th anniversary of birth (31 October 1620).
 
Celebrating Evelyn comes in style for many people who started keeping a diary this spring, written, audio, photo, or video diary, for recording their story of the Covid-19 epidemic, the impacts and the questions raised by this epidemic and the unfolding climatic changes. Evelyn, Wren, Howard were not professional meteorologists. But their observations, insights, and understanding of the importance of weather contributed to the history of meteorology, history of science and the history of civilisations.
 
Your Covid-19 Chronicles can also be part of The British Library's latest born-digital archives initiated by BBC Radio 4’s. Read here how your Covid-19 stories can make history.
An image shows a teacup, a closed laptop computer with monitor, a pen, a cloth-bound book and a pair of earbud headphones
Diary in 2020 [Photo: A. Deri, 6 May 2020]

Further reading
British Library to find home for Covid Chronicles (3 minutes)
Hear Polly Russell lead curator at the British Library tell Evan Davis how the Covid Chronicles might be used by future researchers.
30th April 2020
Evelyn, J., W. Bray (ed.) 1952. The diary of John Evelyn.   Vols. I-II. Dent.
BL Shelfmark W11/6235 Vol I; W11/6236 Vol II
Digitized editions of Evelyn’s diaries on http://www.archive.org & http://www.gutenberg.org 
Sprat, Th. (ed.) 1667. The History of the Royal Society of London, for the Improving of Natural Knowledge. London.
Winn, J.M. 1848. Notes on Meterology. Annual Report of the Royal Institution of Cornwall. Appendix II. Vol. 29. pp. 38-45.
BL Shelfmark Ac.1225
 
Many thanks to Phil Hatfield for his helpful suggestions.
 
Written by Andrea Deri, Science Reference Team

01 April 2020

Clouds: How Luke Howard linked Weather Lore and Natural Philosophy

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I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
   William Wordsworth

A greyscale image of a painting of a large fluffy cloud
Figure 1 Cumulus is one of the three main genera of cloud formations proposed by Luke Howard in 1802 and still used today. Image from Howard, L. 1832 (second edition). On the modification of clouds, etc. page 33. Philo. Mag. Pl. VI. Vol. XVII. DRT Digital Store 1393.k.16.(1.)

 William Wordsworth’s (1770-1850) ‘lonely as a cloud’ poem was conceived in April 1802 on a spring day walk in the Lake District. A few months later, in December 1802, a pharmacist and amateur meteorologist, Luke Howard (1772-1864) delivered a paper in London, on the dynamics of cloud formations. The two events were unrelated but their futures became intertwined. Howard’s essay ‘On the modifications of Clouds’ (1803) resonated deeply within learned circles, including arts and sciences. Clouds soon became the objects of fascination and scrutinizing attention. Articulating the order of the enigmatic sky-scape inspired poets, painters and scientists. The "lonely as a cloud" simile in Wordsworth’s poem, which he composed and published (1807) years after his Lake District walk, is also a nod to Howard’s ideas.  Within sciences a century later, the International Cloud Atlas (2017) of the World Meteorological Organization still draws on Howard’s taxonomy. 

 
What is it about Howard’s approach to clouds that made his essay so influential? Various characteristics have been identified so far; a few are highlighted here.
 
Howard likened cloud formations to the eloquence of human facial expression:
Clouds 'are subject to certain distinct modifications, produced by the general causes which effect all the variations of the atmosphere: they are commonly as good visible indications of the operation of these causes, as is the countenance of the state of a person's mind or body.' (Howard 1830:3)
By relating clouds to people, especially the face, the most personal feature of an individual, Howard captured the imagination of his readers: a truly powerful captatio benevolentiae at the time of growing interest in the self and its romantic reflections in the world.
 
In addition to making clouds personal, Howard drew on sources of knowledge that had authority on the weather in different parts of the society in the early 19th century England. One was popular knowledge or weather lore based on the practical knowledge of weather-wise farmers and mariners whose life depended on their ability of reading the clouds and other weather signs. The other was the theoretical knowledge of natural philosophers whose ambitions to account for weather changes employed experimental methods of the fledgling sciences.
'It is the frequent observation of the countenance of the sky, and of its connection with the present and ensuing phaenomena, that constitutes the antient [sic] and popular meteorology. The want of this branch of knowledge renders the prediction of the philosopher (who is attending only to his instruments may be said only to examine the pulse of the atmosphere) less generally successful than those of the weather-wise mariner or husbandman.' (Howard 1830:3)
Howard recognized the challenges of linking the two, translating between different ways of knowing, especially when mariners’ and farmers’ tacit knowledge was considered as  ‘incommunicable’:
'But as this experience is usually consigned only to the memory of the possessor [Howard refers here to mariners, farmers], in a confused mass of simple aphorisms, the skill resulting from it is in a manner of incommunicable; for, however valuable these links when in connexion with the rest of the chain, they often serve, when taken singly, only to mislead; and the power of connecting them, in order to form a judgement upon occasion, resides only in the mind before which their relations have passed, through perhaps imperceptibly, in review.' (Howard 1830:4)
The above description makes Howard a forerunner of the still on-going debate on the commensurability of practice-based and scientific knowledge.

Howard was fully aware of the obstacles presented by the isolation of different knowledge traditions and of the necessity of communication. This is why he proposed a common vocabulary:
'In order to enable the meteorologist to apply the key of analysis to the experience of others, as well as to record his own with brevity and precision, it may perhaps be allowable to introduce a methodical nomenclature, applicable to the various forms of suspended water, or, in other words, to the modification of cloud.'  (Howard 1830:4)
An image of three clouds of different types, described in the caption
Figure 2 Cirro-cumulus, cirro-stratus, cumulo-stratus, from top to down. Cirrus, stratus and cumulus, represent Howard’s three main genera of cloud formations. They can transform into each other and form composites. Image from Howards, L. 1832 (second edition). On the modification of clouds, etc. page 33. Philo. Mag. Pl. VII. Vol. XVII. DRT Digital Store 1393.k.16.(1.)

By linking practical knowledge and experimental scientific approaches, Howard highlighted an important similarity: both assumed order and predictability in the formation of clouds, or ‘nubification’, as Howard referred to the process. Both assumed that cloud formation was driven by many more factors than the ‘sport of winds’. Landscape features in the following example: when the morning sun warms up the mist, which sits in the valley as a stratus, formed during the night, a cloud can form as a nascent cumulus over the meadow, an indicator of fair weather:
‘At nebulae magis ima petunt, campoque recumbent.’ (But the clouds seek more the vales, and rest upon the plain)
Virgil Georgicon. Liber I. line 401 quoted in Howard on page 8 in the section of describing cirro-cumulus. (Translated by J.B. Greenough, 190)
Howard’s invocation of Virgil further strengthened his argument for connecting popular and scientific knowledge. Quotations from Virgil’s Georgics Book 1, that covers knowledge of farming and weather recognized in 1st century BC in ancient Rome, gave further credibility to practice-based knowledge. Howard’s readers who grew up on Latin antiquities recognized the Georgics as classic text and this familiarity may have given greater appeal to Howard’s ideas.
 
Howard’s cloud book is very short, only 32 pages, and illustrated with the author’s watercolours. The British Library holds three editions (1803, 1830, 1894), of which the second is digitized, and freely accessible remotely through Explore (Digital Store 1393.k.16.(1.))
 
Cloud spotting remains a passion, and Howard’s taxonomy of cirrus, stratus and cumulus still guides cloud observation in the 21st century.
This spring, in our isolation, looking up at the sky from our window, clouds may present the only contact we have with the natural world. The ever-changing cloud formations may give us both a sense of space and a sense of belongingness; even more so if we share our observations on citizen science initiatives, such as BBC Weather Watchers.
 
A photograph of a sky filled with fluffy cumulus clouds over the roofs of suburban houses
Figure 3 Sky-scape with cumulus over London (Photo: Andrea Deri, 31st March 2020)

In our bliss of solitude, dreaming on our couch with Wordsworth, may our wondering about clouds also extend to Luke Howard.
‘For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.’
A handwritten poem on a piece of paper
Figure 4 A section of a hand-written manuscript of William Wordsworth's poem 'I wandered lonely as a cloud'. © The British Library Board 065858. BL Add. MS 47864

References:
Boon, R., 2014. The man who named the clouds. Science Museum Blog. https://blog.sciencemuseum.org.uk/the-man-who-named-the-clouds/ [Accessed 27 March 2020]
Brant, C., 2019. A cloud. European Romanticism in Association?: A pan-European organization bringing together individual researchers, scholarly associations and heritage institutions studying Romantic literature and culture.  https://www.euromanticism.org/a-cloud/ [Accessed 27 March 2020]
Hamblyn, R. 2001. The invention of clouds: how an amateur meteorologist forged the language of the skies. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. British Library shelfmarks m02/13387, YK.2001.a.15194
Howard, L., [1830]. On the modification of clouds and on the Principles of their Production, Suspension, and Destruction: Being the Substance of an Essay read before the Askensian Society in the Session 1802-3, Second ed. Printed by Talor, Black-Horse-Road, Fleet Street, London. British Library shelfmark 1393.k.16.(1.) 
Pedgley, D.E., 2003. Luke Howard and his clouds. Weather 58, pp. 51–55. https://doi.org/10.1256/wea.157.02 [Accessed 27 March 2020]
Reno, S.T., 2017. Romantic Clouds: Climate, Affect, Hyperobjects Seth T. Reno, in: Robertson, B.P. (Ed.), Romantic Sustainability: Endurance and the Natural World, 1780-1830. Lexington Books, Chapter 3. British Library shelfmark YC.2016.a.11155 
P. Vergilius Maro, Georgics. Books One. J. B. Greenough, (ed.) Translated by J.B. Greenough into English, 1900 Text
http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0058%3Abook%3D1%3Acard%3D393 [Accessed 27 March 2020]
Wordsworth, W., Kelliher, W.H., 1984. The manuscript of William Wordsworth’s poems, in two volumes (1807): a facsimile. British Library, London. British Library shelfmark Document Supply fGPB-46
 
Contributed by Andrea Deri, Science Reference Team

07 February 2020

INTRODUCING: STREET SCIENTISTS – 11 February 2020

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Wise Festival - Celebrating the International Day of Women and Girls in Science
 
Newcastle University’s Street Science Team bring science, engineering, technology and maths to life through the medium of street performance. We take everyday household objects and use them to demonstrate the scientific phenomena we encounter every single day. It’s science, but not as we know it!
 
Images of scientists demonstrating experiments to members of the public
  
WISE (WOMEN IN SCIENCE EVENTS) Festival, British Library 11 February 2020
 
The British Library is joining in the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, celebrating and raising the voices of women in science with a one day mini festival.  Our events and talks will encourage you to laugh, sing and think.  Every few days this blog will look in more detail at the participants and their involvement with the event.
 

06 February 2020

INTRODUCING: THE TRUTH INSIDE – 11 February 2020

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Wise Festival - Celebrating the International Day of Women and Girls in Science
 
Is that necklace of yours really gold? Bournemouth University’s Archaeology and Anthropology Department will be showcasing their Portable X-Ray Fluorescence (PXRF) analyser which allows archaeologists to determine the composition of archaeological artefacts and sediments. Bring along any small items you'd like to discover more about or see inside one of our artefacts.
 
An image of a woman archaeologist using a piece of equipment to determine material composition

 
Join us next time to find out more about Street Scientists
 
WISE (WOMEN IN SCIENCE EVENTS) Festival, British Library 11 February 2020
 
The British Library is joining in the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, celebrating and raising the voices of women in science with a one day mini festival.  Our events and talks will encourage you to laugh, sing and think.  Every few days this blog will look in more detail at the participants and their involvement with the event.
 

04 February 2020

INTRODUCING: Women In Their Element – 11 February 2020

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Wise Festival - Celebrating the International Day of Women and Girls in Science

The co-editors and contributors of the recently published "Women in Their Element" provide a fresh perspective on the unsung contributors to science in this half-day seminar on women and the Periodic Table.

Speakers and Topics Include:

Claire Jones – The Vanished Women of Victorian Science
Annette Lykknes – The Women Behind the Periodic System: An Introduction
John Hudson – What's in a Name? Margaret Todd and the Term Isotope
Jenny Wilson – Dame Kathleen Lonsdale FRS (1903-1971) and her Work on Carbon Compounds
Brigitte Van Tiggelen – Women in their Element: Trajectories of Fame or Invisibility
Claire Murray and Jessica A. F. Wade – The unsung heroines of the superheavy elements

A image of the logo of World Scientific
An image of the cover of the book 'Women in their Element'

 
Join us next time to find out more about Bio-Selfies

WISE (WOMEN IN SCIENCE EVENTS) Festival, British Library 11 February 2020

The British Library is joining in the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, celebrating and raising the voices of women in science with a one day mini festival.  Our events and talks will encourage you to laugh, sing and think.  Every few days this blog will look in more detail at the participants and their involvement with the event.

https://www.bl.uk/events/wise-festival

30 January 2020

INTRODUCING: BACK TO THE FUTURE – 11 February 2020

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Wise Festival - Celebrating the International Day of Women and Girls in Science
 
Learning from the science of the past to protect our futures.

The Institute for the Modelling of Socio-Environmental Transitions (IMSET) addresses one of the most significant global challenges facing humanity today: how we manage and respond to environmental change. It does this by exploring how past societies were affected by environmental change, how they responded to these challenges and, therefore, what are the most sustainable options available to present-day societies under similar pressures. Join this panel of distinguished scientists (archaeologists, palaeoecologists)  as part of the WISE Festival evening events.

Chaired by Emma Jenkins, Director of IMSET and Associate Professor, Department of Archaeology & Anthropology, Bournemouth University
 
Panel:
Nicola Whitehouse, Professor of Human-Environment Systems at Plymouth University and Senior Lecture in Archaeology at Glasgow University
Erika Guttmann-Bond, Author of Reinventing Sustainability: How Archaeology Can Save the Planet
Fiona Coward, Principal Academic in Archaeological Sciences, Bournemouth University
 
Join us next time to find out more about – Voices of Science
 
WISE (WOMEN IN SCIENCE EVENTS) Festival, British Library 11 February 2020
 
The British Library is joining in the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, celebrating and raising the voices of women in science with a one day mini festival.  Our events and talks will encourage you to laugh, sing and think.  Every few days this blog will look in more detail at the participants and their involvement with the event.
 

27 January 2020

INTRODUCING: HELEN ARNEY – 11 February 2020

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Wise Festival - Celebrating the International Day of Women and Girls in Science

We are delighted that Helen Arney will be the MC for the evening festival.

Science presenter, comedian and geek songstress Helen Arney has appeared on TV, radio and in theatres across the world.
You might have seen her explaining physics while riding a rollercoaster for BBC Coast, singing the periodic table on Channel 4 News, hosting Outrageous Acts Of Science on Discovery or smashing wine glasses with the power of her voice in Festival of the Spoken Nerd.
 
 
 
We can’t wait to see what she brings to the Festival!
 
An image of scientist Helen Arney
Photo credit: Alex Brenner
 
WISE (WOMEN IN SCIENCE EVENTS) Festival, British Library 11 February 2020.

The British Library is joining in the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, celebrating and raising the voices of women in science with a one day mini festival.  Our events and talks will encourage you to laugh, sing and think.  Every few days this blog will look in more detail at the participants and their involvement with the event.
 

21 January 2020

INTRODUCING: SUNETRA GUPTA – 11 February 2020

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Wise Festival - Celebrating the International Day of Women and Girls in Science

The WISE Festival is in particularly excited to announce Professor Sunetra Gupta as its closing speaker. We will be drawing on Sunetra’s unique perspective combining her scientific work on the evolution of pathogens with her experience as an award winning novelist and translator, to discuss science as a part of our culture and not something that is separate, reserved only for scientists and independent of other human endeavour.  How can we create new links and ways of thinking that can enrich our lives beyond the perceived boundaries of science and arts? Do scientific and literary narratives have anything in common? Can science be beautiful? A perfect reflection at the British Library where different fields of knowledge sit alongside each other, ready for new connections to be made by anyone curious and creative. A picture of Sunetra Gupta, novelist, translator and scientist

Sunetra is an acclaimed novelist, essayist and scientist. In October 2012 her fifth novel, So Good in Black, was longlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. In 2009 she was named as the winner of the Royal Society Rosalind Franklin Award for her scientific achievements. Sunetra is Professor of Theoretical Epidemiology at Oxford University's Department of Zoology, having graduated in 1987 from Princeton University and received her PhD from the University of London in 1992. Sunetra was born in Calcutta in 1965 and wrote her first works of fiction in Bengali. She is an accomplished translator of the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore.

See more about Sunetra


Join us next time to find out more about our second plenary speaker Danielle George.

WISE (WOMEN IN SCIENCE EVENTS) Festival, British Library 11 February 2020

The British Library is joining in the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, celebrating and raising the voices of women in science with a one day mini festival.  Our events and talks will encourage you to laugh, sing and think.  Every few days this blog will look in more detail at the participants and their involvement with the event.

https://www.bl.uk/events/wise-festival

14 January 2020

INTRODUCING THE WISE FESTIVAL (WOMEN IN SCIENCE EVENTS) – 11 February 2020

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A handwritten letter from Ada Lovelace to Charles BabbageThe British Library is joining in the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, celebrating and raising the voices of women in science with a one day mini festival. Our events and talks will encourage you to laugh, sing and think. Every few days this blog will look in more detail at the participants and their involvement with the event.

From 1pm drop in to our free Entrance Hall sessions, including fun scientific presentations, hands-on activities and a chance to create your own (bio)selfie using the bacteria swabbed from your cheek. There’s something for all ages and levels of science knowledge. See the full list of activities here.
Then join us for an evening of talks to hear from women about their experiences of working in the sciences. This is a ticketed event and tickets can be purchased from our website.

The British Library holds one of the most comprehensive national science collections in the world, ranging from ancient manuscripts grappling to understand different aspects of the world, prior to the development of science as we know it today, to the latest scientific publications deposited at the Library through the electronic legal deposit every day. The British Library preserves the UK scientific record, supports scientific research and enables access to science for all, which includes supporting equality and diversity in science. During 2020 the Library’s exhibition Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women's Rights will be looking into the struggle for women’s rights in all walks of life which includes an ongoing struggle for equality in all areas of science, technology and engineering. The WISE Festival is an opportunity to start our reflection on women’s rights and to celebrate the achievements of women in science in a way that we hope will be fun, inspirational and thought-provoking.

Join us next time to find out more about Sunetra Gupta.

WISE (WOMEN IN SCIENCE EVENTS) Festival, British Library 11 February 2020.
www.bl.uk/events/wise-festival

04 December 2019

Oil, storms and knowing part 2: Pliny, Franklin and the IPCC Special Report on Oceans

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This post is the second of a pair to mark the period of the 25th Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and is contributed by Andrea Deri, Cataloguer.

In addition to seafarers, fishers in the Mediterranean Sea applied oil as Pliny the Elder and Plutarch described. Divers released olive oil from their mouth and used the oil film on the sea surface as a ‘skylight’ for underwater fishing. Oyster collectors in Gibraltar did just the same. They made use of their observation that oil prevented ripples formation and the smooth surface allowed steadier and deeper penetration of sunlight for increased visibility under the water.

Seal hunters also benefitted from the smooth sea surface created by oil. In their case it was the common seal that ‘released’ the oil as 18th-century Welsh zoologist Thomas Pennant, shared hunters’ observations:

Seals prey beneath the water, and in case they are devouring any very oily fish, the place is known by a certain smoothness of the waves immediately above.

An image shows three seals lazing on a rocky outcrop
Common seals create an oily patch on the sea surface when they consume their oily fish underwater. Seal-hunters were aware of this phenomenon. From Thomas Pennant, British Zoology Volume I Plate XII (London, 1812:167) 728.f.26.

Pouring oil on the sea was practiced and endorsed even by the British Admiralty (1891) as a way to prevent waves from crashing over the vessel:

Many experiences of late the utility of oil for this purpose is undoubted, and the application is simple. […] A very small quantity of oil, skillfully [sic] applied, may prevent much damage both to ships (especially the smaller classes) and to boats, by modifying the action of breaking seas.

The oil was often applied from an oil bag, ‘usually filled with oakum (teased rope fibres), and/or cotton waste, and fish oil was indeed the preferred (and cheapest) medium used.’ The oil bag was hung over the side of the vessel, immersed in the sea, windward, and pricked with a sail needle to facilitate leakage of the oil. […]’

Sea captain J. W. Martin describes the most recent use of oil bag in ‘launching or recovering ships’ boats, embarking or disembarking a pilot’ and makes the point that carrying an oil bag was compulsory in British ships’ lifeboats’ equipment until 1998.

It was Benjamin Franklin whose experiments provided impetus for exploring the science, the physics, behind the phenomenon: why and how oil prevented waves from breaking. In the spirit of Enlightenment Franklin used an experimental approach to triangulate and scientifically account for practitioners’ observations.

The correspondence of English and Dutch ‘learned gentlemen’ reveals their excitement and commitment for compiling oil stories from as diverse sources as possible – ‘ancient’ (Latin and Greek classics), ‘vulgar’ (lay knowledge), anecdotal, published and experimental – in order to defend the authority of either practitioners’ or natural philosophers’ approach to understanding the oil’s wave stilling effect.

Franklin acknowledges his bias towards ‘modern’ (18th century) ‘learned’ people’s knowledge compared to old and lay sources:

I had, when a youth, read and smiled at Pliny's account of the practice among seamen of his time, to still the waves in a storm by pouring oil into the sea […] [I]t has been of late too much the mode to slight the learning of the antients [sic]. The learned, too, are apt to slight too much the knowledge of the vulgar. This art of smoothing the waves with oil, is an instance of both.

This candid self-reflection is all the more interesting as Franklin and his fellow Enlightenment philosophers benefited from the data, which they snubbed at, for formulating their ideas. By privileging the fast-developing scientific approach, the ‘learned gentlemen’ facilitated the shift of epistemic authorities from traditional knowledge to science and contributed to the politically constructed divide between different ways of knowing.

A drawing shows a nineteenth-century rowing boat approaching an endangered sailing ship in a stormy see
A lifeboat approaching a ship in a stormy sea, from Description of the Royal Cyclorama, or Music Hall: Albany Street, Regent’s Park ... (London, 1849) RB.31.a.23(2)

Within the scientific paradigm, integration of practical and scientific inquiry remained a challenging enterprise with resistance from all involved.

However, a new paradigm seems to be emerging in the context of the unfolding climatic changes. While the authority of knowing still held by science, the relevance of local, traditional and indigenous ways of knowing appears to be slowly acknowledged (again):

Scientific knowledge, Indigenous knowledge, and local knowledge can complement one another by engaging both quantitative data and qualitative information, including people’s observations, responses and values. However, this process of knowledge co-production is complex and IK and LK possess uncertainties of a different nature from those of scientific knowledge, often resulting in the dominance of scientific knowledge over IK and KL in policy, governance, and management. [IPCC 2019:37]

The IPCC special report on ‘The Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate’ published in September 2019 portrays science and local knowledge (LK) and indigenous knowledge (IK) as complementary, an attitude that pours oil on the troubled waters of the local knowledge - science nexus.

Thanks to Marja Kingma, Curator, Germanic Collections, BL European Studies; Dr. Saqib Baburi, Curator, Persian Manuscripts, BL Asian and African Collections with contributions from Arani Ilankuberan, Curator, South Indian Collections; Phil Hatfield, Head of Eccles Centre, BL Eccles Centre for American Studies and Julian Harrison, Lead Curator, Medieval Historical & Lit., Western Heritage Collection;

References and further reading:

Franklin, B. ‘Of the Stilling of Waves by Means of Oil. Extracted from sundry Letters between Benjamin Franklin, L.L.D. F.R.S. William Brownrigg, M.D. F.R.S. and the Reverend Mr. Farish’. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 1774, 64(0), pp.445–460. Available at: https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/pdf/10.1098/rstl.1774.0044 [Accessed 3 December 2019].

Gilkes, M. F. ‘A Whatsit’ Mariner’s mirror, 2009. 95(3), pp.336–337. Shelfmark Ac.8109.c.

IPCC, 2019. Summary for Policymakers. In: IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.[H.-O. Portner, D.C. Roberts, V. Masson-Delmotte, P. Zhai, M. Tignor, E. Poloczanska, K. Mintenbeck, M. Nicolai, A. Okem, J. Petzold, B. Rama, N. Weyer (eds.). In Press. Available at https://www.ipcc.ch/srocc/  [Accessed 3 December 2019] 

IPCC and Allen, M.R., Global Warming of 1.5 oC?: Global Warming of 1.5 °C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty. Technical Summary [in press]. [online] (Geneva, 2019) Available at: https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/sites/2/2019/02/SR15_TS_High_Res.pdf. [Accessed 3 December 2019] 

Martin, J.W.C.F. ‘Oil Bag’. Mariner’s mirror, 2010, 96(1), pp.94–95. Shelfmark Ac.8109.c.

Mertens, J. ‘Oil On Troubled Waters: Benjamin Franklin and the Honor of Dutch Seamen’. Physics Today 59 (2007), 36. (P)PQ00-E(51) <https://physicstoday.scitation.org/doi/10.1063/1.2180175> [Accessed 3 December 2019] 

Pennant, T. British Zoology (London, 1812:167) Shelfmark 728.f.26. Volume I Plate XII

Pliny the Elder, Natural history, with an English translation in ten volumes by H. Rackham, M.A. (London, 1938)?
 Book II, CVI. 233 - CIX 235 page 360 Latin, page 361 English translation Shelfmark 2282.d.150

Plutarch, Moralia in Fifteen Volumes, with an English translation by Lionel Pearson and F. H. Sandbach (London, 1965)?
 Volume XI 854 E - 874 C, 911 C - 919 F Shelfmark 2282.d.96.

Taylor, A. D. and J.J.P Hitchfield, The West Coast of Hindustan Pilot: including the Gulf of Manar, the Maldive and Laccadive Islands (London, 1891) Shelfmark V 8711

Wyckoff, L. A. B. ‘The Use Of Oil In Storms At Sea.’ Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 23, (1886), 383–388. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/983222  [Accessed 3 December 2019]