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16 March 2020

Caroline Herschel born 270 years ago today.

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A close-up image of a handwritten manuscript on paper
The first page of the letter from Caroline Herschel on display in the Treasures Gallery

Happy birthday Caroline Herschel!


Today is the 270th anniversary of the birth of the German-born British astronomer Caroline Herschel, who discovered eight comets and fourteen nebulae. She also produced an expansion and correction of the previous main British star catalogue, created in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century by John Flamsteed, and made substantial contributions to the catalogue of nebulae and star clusters published after her death by her nephew John F W Herschel. She made heavy contributions as well to the work of her elder brother William Herschel, famous as the discoverer of Uranus.


Caroline Hershel was born in 1750 in Hannover in Germany, the daughter of a military musician. As the youngest daughter of her family, it was assumed by convention at the time that she would devote her life to helping her mother maintain the home and look after her father and elder brothers, which she resented. Her escape from this came when her brother William invited her to move to England and join him in Bath, where he was working in the family tradition as a musician. Caroline became a promising singer, but when her brother shifted his interests from music to astronomy he assumed once again that she would naturally help him in his own career. Over the years, despite this unwilling beginning, she became genuinely enthusiastic for the subject. In 1782, William was appointed Royal Astronomer by George III (not to be confused with the older position of the Astronomer Royal at Greenwich) and the pair moved to Datchet near Slough, to be closer to the royal home at Windsor. In 1787, William pursuaded the King to pay Caroline a salary in her own right, making her the first woman in Britain to be employed as a scientist.


The work was not just intellectual but physically demanding. William and Caroline had to construct their own telescopes and spend hours in the open air at night making observations. William's telescopes were some of the largest in the world at the time, being from twenty to forty feet in length. On one occasion, Caroline fell and impaled her leg on part of a telescope, losing a two ounce lump of flesh and suffering an injury which a military surgeon later told her would have entitled a soldier to six weeks spent in an infirmary.


Caroline's contributions have traditionally been undervalued due to a mixture of her personal shyness (coupled with disdain for people who she considered intellectually inferior) and her willingness to publicly depict herself as merely a submissive helpmeet to her brother, to avoid controversy, which were played up by subsequent commentators who wanted to depict her as conventionally feminine. Letters to her family which we hold here at the BL reveal her as a rather more strong-willed person, with a sardonic sense of humour.


After William's death in 1822, Caroline moved back to Hannover, where the position of her home in the centre of the city prevented her from much astronomical observation. In response, she devoted herself to compiling the catalogue of nebulae and star clusters. She died in 1848, increasingly physically frail in her later years but mentally sharp until the end.
We hold three copies of the first edition of Caroline Herschel's catalogue of stars, at the shelfmarks L.R.301.bb.2, 59.f.4, and B.265. The copy at L.R.301.bb.2 bears the bookplate of Charles Frederick Barnwell, at one time assistant keeper of antiquities at the British Museum, and is bound with a copy of the star catalogue of Francis Wollaston, another astronomer of the same era.


The letter from Caroline Herschel currently displayed in the Treasures Gallery is taken from the section of the Charles Babbage papers dealing with astronomy, Add MS 37203. It is a copy of a letter originally sent to Nevil Maskelyne, the Astronomer Royal of the era, who was one of the few friends who Caroline was comfortable enough with to make an extended visit to. Her letters to close relatives while living in Hannover, which show a more outspoken side to her, are found at Egerton MS 3761 and Egerton MS 3762. The "Egerton" refers to the fact that they were purchased by the British Museum Library with money from an endowment created specifically to acquire manuscripts in the bequest of Francis Henry Egerton, 8th Earl of Bridgewater.


Further reading:
Brock, C. The comet sweeper. Thriplow: Icon, 2007. Shelfmark YC.2008.a.3165, also available as e-book in the British Library Reading Rooms.
Hoskin, M. Herschel, Caroline Lucretia (1750-1848). In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2005. https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/13100. Available online in British Library Reading Rooms.
Winterburn, E. The quiet revolution of Caroline Herschel. Stroud: The History Press, 2017. Shelfmark YK.2018.a.6511, also available as e-book in the British Library Reading Room

09 March 2020

Donald Michie (1923-2007): ‘Duckmouse’, a modern-day polymath

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This post is part of a series highlighting some of the British Library’s science collections as part of British Science Week 2020.

Codebreaker? Geneticist? Computer scientist? There is no single label which best encapsulates the wide reach of Donald Michie’s career as a scientist. In nearly 70 years of research, Michie crossed paths with some of the most well-known scientific names of the twentieth century, such as Alan Turing and Trofim Lysenko, and was at the forefront of two contrasting fields of scientific research.

Michie was born to a middle-class family in Rangoon, Burma (now Yangon, Myanmar) in 1923, son of a British Empire banker. As was typical for young British boys of the Empire, he was sent back to Britain to boarding school for his education, attending Rugby School.

As a young man, fresh out of school and armed with a scholarship to study classics at Balliol College, Oxford, Michie accidentally found himself on a codebreaking course at Bletchley Park in 1942, in the middle of World War II. Intending to attend a Japanese language course, he had inadvertently turned up six months early, but was pointed to a codebreaking course, which he excelled at, returning after hours to revise and practice. Upon completing the course, he was assigned to the Newmanry (a group within Bletchley), cracking the Lorenz cipher.

Black and white photograph of a young white man in collar and tie
Donald Michie c. 1940s (Add MS 89072/1/5). Reproduced with permission of the estate of Donald Michie.

 During his time at Bletchley, Michie befriended Alan Turing, whom he bonded with over their (relatively) poor standard of chess play. Their shared interest in playing chess badly and work on what we would now consider early computers led Michie and Turing to wonder: could machines be taught to play chess? And, beyond that, could machines think?

The latter question would form the basis of one of Turing’s best-known papers in 1950, a paper which still influences modern computer and AI research. The former led to Michie and Turing theorising their own chess-playing programmes on paper, with the hope that one day they could run them through a computer to test who’s played better. The programmers of Manchester’s early computers put paid to that prospect in the early 1950s, and the Turing-Michie computer chess match never took place.

One popular story abounds for Michie and Turing: during the war, Turing was known to trade his money for bars of silver, which he then buried in various spots around Bletchley Park. He made no note of the location of his silver, for fear of wartime invasion and discovery by the Germans. Post-war, Turing enlisted assistance from Michie to help locate it using a ‘gimcrack’, home-made metal detector. The search for Turing’s buried silver ingots around the grounds of Bletchley proved fruitless, and they remain lost to this day.

Following the end of the war, Michie turned his attentions away from computing and took up his place at Oxford, however not to study classics, as originally planned, but medicine instead. In his own words: ‘After the war, I had been switched on to computing, but there weren’t any computers to do experiments with. I had to do something, so I became a biologist.’ Michie earned his PhD in mammalian genetics in 1953 under the supervision of Ronald Fisher, then moved to the Department of Zoology at University College London. There, he worked alongside his second wife, Anne McLaren, exploring genetic inheritance in mice. Large parts of Michie and McLaren’s work together has become central to the field, such as their work indicating that inbred mice were not best for experimentation. Perhaps most notably, their pioneering research on embryo transfer on mice would later be developed, especially by McLaren, to form the basis of human IVF treatment.

Michie’s research in the 1950s also brought him into contact with the ongoing debate in Britain around the work of Trofim Lysenko. Lysenko was a scientist whose theories dominated Soviet genetics and agricultural science from the 1930s to the 1950s. He took a Lamarckian approach to genetics, arguing that acquired characteristics could be inherited. For example, a mouse which grows a long tail in response to a hot climate could then pass this trait on to its offspring. This theory was hotly contested outside the Soviet sphere of influence, conflicting as it did with the prevailing theories of genetics in Western Europe and the USA. Michie, however, saw some value in Lysenko’s theories and advocated for them to be tested in Britain by both professional scientists and amateur gardeners, hoping this would give the approach greater credibility.

Michie eventually came face-to-face with Lysenko in a chance encounter during a visit to the Moscow Institute of Genetics in 1957. Having camped across Europe in an old car with a friend, Michie met up with McLaren in Moscow, where the two of them interviewed Lysenko. Michie found Lysenko ‘stubborn, impatient, bigoted [and] intolerant’, yet also recognised qualities of ‘energies focussed in the search for understanding and the urge to communicate it’. According to Michie, it would take someone of Lysenko’s temperament and talents to make meaningful scientific advances, or even to ‘revolutionise’ an ‘old branch of knowledge’.

A black and white photograph of four men and two women in a room.
Donald Michie (far right) and Anne McLaren (second from right) with Trofim Lysenko (third from left), 1957 (Add MS 89202/5/48). Reproduced with permission of the estate of Anne McLaren.

 Whilst Lysenko’s fame and appeal faded into the 1960s, Michie’s interest in international exchanges and the sharing of scientific knowledge and practices did not. He hosted many Soviet researchers in Edinburgh and undertook numerous visits beyond the Iron Curtain himself, as well as trips to visit colleagues in the USA.

By the late 1950s, Michie was once again pursuing his interest in artificial intelligence (AI), taking on a bet from a colleague in Edinburgh (where he moved in 1958) that he could not produce a learning machine. The outcome, in 1960, was MENACE (Machine Educable Noughts and Crosses Engine), a matchbox machine which learned, through trial and error, how to play noughts and crosses perfectly. His bet won, Michie threw himself into AI research full-time, co-founding the Experimental Programming Unit at Edinburgh in 1965, followed by the Department of Machine Intelligence and Perception there a year later.

Michie’s importance in AI was perhaps most evident in the early 1970s. Firstly, he and his team at Edinburgh built and programmed a robot, named FREDERICK (Friendly Robot for Education, Discussion and Entertainment, the Retrieval of Information, and the Collation of Knowledge). Freddy II could identify different parts of an object and assembling them. It was amongst the most advanced robots of its kind at the time, integrating perception and action in one machine.

A large robotic pincer grips a crudely-stylised toy car as it rests on a table
Freddy with toy car, c. 1973. Reproduced with the permission of the University of Edinburgh.

 However, this progress was not deemed sufficient. The Science Research Council commissioned Professor Sir James Lighthill to conduct a survey of AI in Britain, and in 1973 he published his report. The report was damning, arguing that progress in AI research was insufficient to justify the funding it was receiving. A BBC TV debate followed at the Royal Institution as part of the series of science debates called, Controversy. Michie, alongside John McCarthy and Richard Gregory, took on Lighthill. The argument was ultimately lost in the eyes of the Science Research Council. AI funding took a heavy hit, with Michie’s department in Edinburgh one of only three university departments left engaging in AI research in the UK. The subsequent decade of AI underfunding came to be known as the ‘AI Winter’ as similar cuts were enacted in the USA.

Michie’s research into AI continued, founding the Turing Institute in Glasgow in 1983. During these later years, Michie returned to Turing’s ideas, in particular the concept of a ‘child-machine’, ‘an educable machine, capable of learning and accumulating knowledge over time’. To this end, Michie developed a chat-bot: Sophie. Sophie was intended as a challenge to the Turing test, i.e. can a machine convince a human it is human? To Michie, ‘the value of the Turing test is not what it says about machine intelligence, but what it says about human intelligence’. He gave Sophie a sense of humour, a backstory, a family; in essence, Sophie had a personality. Apparently ‘Southern California Trash’ was an apt accent for her personality when demonstrating the speech-generating software.

A head-and-shoulders shot of a grinning, balding white man in a suit and tie
Donald Michie c. 1980s (Add MS 88958/5/4). Reproduced with permission of the estate of Donald Michie.

Donald Michie at the British Library
The Donald Michie Papers at the British Library comprises of three separate tranches of material gifted to the library in 2004 and 2008. They consist of correspondence, notes, notebooks, offprints and photographs and are available to researchers through the British Library’s Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue at Add MS 88958, Add MS 88975 and Add MS 89072.

Sources and Further Reading:
Michie, D., ‘Interview with Lysenko’, Soviet Science Bulletin, V (1 and 2, 1958), 1-10.
Michie, D., Donald Michie on Machine Intelligence, Biology and more, ed. by Ashwin Srinivasan, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
van Emden, M., ‘I Remember Donald Michie (1923 – 2007)’, A Programmer’s Place, 2009, https://vanemden.wordpress.com/2009/06/12/i-remember-donald-michie-1923-2007/ [accessed 30 October 2019].

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

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.
 

24 January 2020

INTRODUCING: THE SCIENCE OF TASTE – 11 February 2020

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

Dr Rachel Edwards-Stuart is a renowned Food Scientist and Flavour Expert. She runs a selection of unique and bespoke events around the Science of Flavour and Gastronomy. Since graduating from Cambridge University, Rachel has trained as a chef in Paris, gained a PhD sponsored by Heston Blumenthal, lectured around Europe, appeared on TV and in the national press, set up the London Gastronomy Seminars, taught science to chefs, developed over 100 gluten free products, and helped to stabilise a 5 tonne chocolate waterfall. (To read more about Rachel, see about)

An image of Dr Rachel Edwards-Stuart behind some flasks

In her break-out session Rachel demonstrates how what you see, hear, touch, smell and taste affects flavour. Learn about the science of the senses, and discover more about how you taste in this interactive journey through flavour perception.

Join us next time to find out more about Back to the Future.

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

22 January 2020

Happy birthday, Francis Bacon

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The 22nd of January is the birthday of the early modern lawyer, politician, and philosopher Francis Bacon, later Viscount St Alban (1561-1626). For the purposes of this blog, he is most famous for his contributions to the gradual evolution of scientific thinking, mainly expressed in his book Novum Organum, first published in Latin in 1620. We hold two copies of the first edition, published by John Bill. One is at shelfmark C.54.F.16, and has a bookplate in the name of John Bentinck, and the second is at 535.k.8.

Title page of Novum Organum naming Bacon in Latin as "Franc. Baconis de Verulamio", showing two large square-rigged ships at sea between two classical colums
Title page of the original 1620 edition of Novum Organum

Novum Organum was intended to be part of Bacon's life's work, The Great Instauration, which would have been a multi-volume work summarising practically all knowledge that existed during his lifetime and suggesting paths for further enquiry. He died long before completing it, although some sections of it dealing with particular subjects existed in manuscript and were published after his death. The book argues for knowledge of the natural world to be developed by collection and juxtaposition of experimental observations, refraining from forming hypotheses too early and attempting to force the information to fit them. While mature scientific method views hypotheses as more significant than Bacon did, his thought was an important reaction to earlier classical and medieval ideas about the natural world, which were based mainly on intellectual speculation.


Novum Organum is also important for its discussion of "idols", or fallacies and habits of thought which interfere with rational thought and prevent people from reaching correct conclusions. Bacon defines four types of these. "Idols of the tribe" are flaws of reasoning which are almost universal among human minds. "Idols of the cave" (an allusion to Plato's Allegory of the Cave) are biases and pre-occupations specific to each individual person. "Idols of the marketplace" are confusions created by the imprecision of language to describe the world, such as when people's understanding of the technical meaning of a word in science is confused by its everyday meaning. Finally, "Idols of the theatre" are mistaken ideas that persist because of their historic prestige and acceptance by authoritative figures.

It is not clear how much experimentation Bacon actually did. The amusing story spread by the memoirist John Aubrey that he died from pneumonia caused by an experiment to see if a chicken could be preserved by stuffing it with snow is nowadays doubted. His unfinished Utopian book New Atlantis was extremely influential in its depiction of "Saloman's House", possibly the first depiction of a scientific institute, which heavily influenced the founding of the Royal Society, just over thirty years after Bacon's death.

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