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108 posts categorized "Science"

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


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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.

15 January 2020

CILIP Health Libraries Group annual conference, July 2020

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CILIP Health Libraries Group Conference 2020. Wednesday 22rd July - Saturday 25th July 2020. Not your average day in the office. Text over a view of a lake lined by conifers
The British Library is happy to help promote the CILIP Health Libraries Group annual conference, which will be held at Aviemore in Scotland on 23rd and 24th July 2020. The conference is one of the main events of the year for healthcare librarians, and is aimed at librarians in healthcare organisations and universities, as well as anyone else with a connection to the health sector. Accomodation is included in the booking and an early bird discount is available until 27th March.

14 January 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.

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: [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  [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: [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) <> [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:  [Accessed 3 December 2019] 

Oil, storms and knowing part 1: Seafarers Calm Waves with Oil

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This post is 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.

A storm at sea is one of the most feared experiences, as it often presages shipwreck. Mariners would do anything to survive tempestuous waters, from weather forecasting to casting holy oil or auspicious soil from the tomb of a Persian Sufi saint, Abu Eshaq Kazaruni (d. 1035) on the waves.

Occasionally, sailors wailing from fear were also briefly plunged into the sea: to calm them, not the waves though.

A medieval illumination showing a group of people with varied skin-tones and costumes crammed into a ship. A young boy is being dangled by his arms over the side.
A Persian pageboy is thrown overboard briefly in order to calm his fears from Saʿdī Shīrāzī, Gulistān (CE 1258), part of his collected works or Kullīyāt. IO Islamic 843, Folio 42v

Oil features prominently in K. V. Hariharan’s paper on ‘Sea-dangers in Early Indian Seafaring’, a catalogue of traditional adaptation practices to a range of marine hazards, including cyclones: ‘Seafarers seemed to have known the effect of oil to smoothen the sea surface’. As storms approached seafarers ‘covered their body and garments with oil to smoothen the surface of the water they touched on thus presenting less resistance to the wind and preventing breaking of the waves – the real dangers in wave motion’.

The sewn boats in the archipelago of Lakshadweep, South India, boats fastened with coir, not nails, have also been coated with an oily material for the same reason seafarers covered themselves with oil: making the vessels waterproof and smoothing the water around them.

In addition to coating, seafarers also poured oil directly onto the sea to prevent the waves from breaking on their vessel. Throwing oil on the waves was applied so widely that it became in idiom in Dutch (‘olie op de golven gooien’) and English (‘pouring oil on troubled waters’) with the meaning of settling a disagreement and ‘bringing about a state of calm after great anger or excitement, etc., by tact and diplomacy.’

‘Oily seas’ that appear during the stormy southwest monsoon (June-September) along the Kerala coast, however, are not caused by mariners but natural processes. According to B. Arunachalam, an authority of Indian marine navigation:

[…] such a sea-surface – the kedu neer – is believed by seamen to generate a relatively smooth surface, ideal for anchoring or drifting during foul weather in rough seas. The mudbanks of Cochin, for this reason, are treated as safe anchorages during active monsoon times. 

Kedu neer  (Tamil  கெடு நீர் ) literally means ‘bad water’. It refers to a turbid and calm marine area with almost no waves. A recent scientific study suggests the calmness of the ‘oily sea’ is linked to the wave damping effect of fine suspended matter, not oil. Mariners may have called these patches ‘oily seas’ as the water over the mud banks near Cochin, Kerala, known to generations of fishers, behave similarly to waters that have no waves because they were covered by a thin oil patch.

A close-up of a wooden boat on water, with an area of calm water immediately around it contracting with the rippling water further away
Traditional sewn fishing boat, small odam, in Agatti, Lakshadweep, India, coated with an oily substance. Photo by Andrea Deri, 23 February 2007


A simplified image of the coastlines around the Indian Ocean. The site of Cochin is highlighted.
Map of the Indian Ocean in B. Arunachalam, Heritage of Indian Sea Navigation. (Mumbai, 2002:9) YA.2003.a.26499. Cochin, where the oily seas of the mud banks provide safe anchoring during the monsoon season, is marked in South India.


A hand=drawn chart of a coastline and island
Traditional Kutchi sea chart, with east at the top, features the Malabar coast, shown as seen from the sea, with coconut palms in B. Arunachalam, Heritage of Indian Sea Navigation. (Mumbai, 2002:28) YA.2003.a.26499. The Cochin port (Kochi Bandar) played an important role in local and regional trade. South Indian ports are considered to be some of the oldest maritime centres.


It was not only in the tropical seas where mariners made use of the oil’s water calming properties. Bede, the Anglo-Saxon scholar and monk, tells us ‘How Bishop Aidan foretold to certain seamen a storm that would happen, and gave them some holy oil to lay it’ [642-645 AD] off the Kentish coast in cold North Sea, recorded in the Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, in the British Library at Add MS 1450.

Bede lists his sources including Utta, the priest who received the oil from Aidan, in order to add credibility to Aidan’s sea calming, revered as miracle. The credit, however, perhaps should go beyond Aiden, to local mariners anonymous to chroniclers.

As Aidan served on two islands, Iona and Lindisfarne, he spent considerable time in boats where he may have experienced and learned the practice of pouring oil on waves from local fishers and seal hunters who ferried him. Could Aiden’s holy oil be the same kind of oil local mariners used to quell waves? If so, this is an example of how local knowledge or rather adaptation practice to extreme weather became canonised.

A stylised medieval image showing three robed men in a sailing boat.
St Cuthbert (c 634-687) in a boat at sea, with two other men, from Chapter 11 of Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert. Yates Thompson 26 f. 26 Cuthbert became a monk after his vision of St Aidan who died in 651


Nautical idioms preserve seafarers’ practices. Most of us, landlubbers, need to take a historical perspective to unpack and appreciate their meaning, and we may still ponder over their relevance today. Faced with the unfolding changes of our climate, a major concern of our time, seafarers may serve a great source of inspiration by the way they kept their knowledge alive with keen observation, tireless experimentation and sharing.

If you have an "oil on water" story, you can tell us here.

References and further reading

Arunachalam, B. Heritage of Indian Sea Navigation (Mumbai, 2002)  Shelfmark YA.2003.a.26499

Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation (London, 1954). Book III, Chapter XV. Shelfmark 4824.m.1

Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum; Plympton annals for the years 1066-1177, Shelfmark Add MS 1450

Hariharan, K. V. ‘Sea-Dangers in Early Indian Seafaring’. Journal of Indian History, 1956. 34 (Part III (Serial No 102)), pp.313–320. Shelfmark Ac.1928/2

Jeans, P.D. Ship To Shore: A Dictionary of Everyday Words and Phrases Derived from the Sea (Santa Barbara, 1993) Shelfmark YC.1996.b.3808

Jyothibabu., R. Balachandran, K.K., Jagadeesan, L., Karnan, C., Arunpandi, N., Naqvi, S.W.A., Pandiyarajan, R.S., 2018. ‘Mud Banks along the southwest coast of India are not too muddy for plankton’. Nature Sci. Rep. 8, 2544. Available online at [Accessed 3 December 2019].

OED, pour oil on troubled waters. [online] Oxford Dictionaries | English. 2019. Available online at: [Accessed 3 December 2019].

M. b. Otman, ‘Ferdaws al-moršediya fi asrar al-samadiya’. In: F. Meier and I.A. Afšar, eds., Die Vita des Abu Ishaq al-Kazaruni in der Persischen Bearbeitung von. (Istanbul, 1943) Shelfmark Per.D.537

Sa'di Shirazi, Gulistan (CE 1258), part of his collected works or Kulliyat. Shelfmark IO Islamic 843, Folio 42v

Subramanian, P.R. Kriyavin tarkalat Tamil akarati: Tamil-Tamil-Ankilam (Madras, 2000)

Simpson, J. A. and E. S. C. Weiner eds., Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford, 1989:749) Shelfmark OIA 423

Varadarajan, L. Sewn Boats of Lakshadweep. National Institute of ([Dona Paula], 1998). Shelfmark YP.2019.b.606

Wright, J.R. A companion to Bede: a reader’s commentary on ‘The ecclesiastical history of the English people’. (Grand Rapids, 2008) Shelfmark YC.2009.a.15214.

06 November 2019

Local Heroes - Trevithick's steam locomotive demonstration of 1808, "Catch Me Who Can"

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In September 1808, the Cornish engineer Richard Trevithick exhibited and operated a steam engine called "Catch Me Who Can" on a circular track of about 100 feet in radius, on a site to the south of Euston Road within walking distance of the British Library. This was the first time in the world that a steam locomotive was used to haul paying passengers on a railway. (It was not the first time that passengers had been carried by steam at all, as five years earlier Trevithick had carried passengers on a steam-powered road vehicle, the London Steam Carriage, and in 1804 had used the world's first steam railway locomotive to haul employees of the Penydarren ironworks in Wales.)

Trevithick was the pioneer of the use of high-pressure steam in power, as advances in metal refining had made it possible to create boilers that could safely contain it. His stationary engines were much more efficient than the earlier low-pressure engines of Newcomen and Watt.

It is not clear exactly how long the locomotive operated for, but it was for at least a fortnight. A marathon operation of a continuous 24 hours was promised, but never carried out, probably due to a failure of the track. The very high entrance fee of two shillings may also have put the public off, as well as the delays in getting the demonstration working. The first advertisements had promised that the attraction would be opened in mid-July, something that might be seen as a portent of notorious later delays in London railway openings.

The site has been identified from contemporary reports and maps as probably being a field known as South Murralls, which is now somewhere under the main complex of University College London. During reconstruction of the UCL Chadwick Building a little further south-west, in 1999, a cinder pit was discovered that may have been connected to the demonstration.

Two paper tickets depicting an early steam locomotive, with handwritten notes.
Original tickets to the Catch Me Who Can demonstration. Photograph by Science Museum Group, used under a CC-BY-SA license

The only reliable depiction of what the locomotive looks like seems to have been a drawing on the entrance tickets, a few of which have survived. The oldest surviving drawing of the locomotive in action was made in 1872 and appears to have been imaginative, with the locomotive based on the ticket depiction. Famous drawings of the scene attributed to the artist and cartoonist Thomas Rowlandson and dated "1809" are now recognised as probably being early-twentieth-century forgeries. More recently, a contemporary drawing by the artist John Claude Nattes now in the collection of the Guildhall Library under the shelfmark Nattes Drawings No. 50 has been recognised by J P S Buckland, and confirmed by John Liffen, to probably show the boiler of the locomotive before its final assembly. It is very similar to the boiler of a Trevithick stationary steam engine of the same era now at the Science Museum.

A group based in Bridgnorth, where the original engine is thought to have been constructed, has built a replica based on the ticket depiction and other locomotives by Trevithick for which detailed drawings and models have survived.

A four-wheeled steam locomotive stands in an industrial-looking shed
The Catch Me Who Can replica at Barrow Hill. Photograph by Hugh Llewelyn under a CC-BY-SA license.

After the end of the experiment, Trevithick seems to have given up interest in steam locomotion. It may have been because he did not get the amount of money or support that he hoped for, but he was also involved in a range of other projects at the time, including an attempt to build a Thames Tunnel (in which he was nearly drowned in a cave-in) and a short-lived engineering works in Limehouse. In 1810, after a serious illness, Trevithick returned to his home in Cornwall, and much of the rest of his life was spent in mining projects in South America.

Sources and further reading:

Liffen, J. Searching for Trevithick's London railway of 1808, in Boyes, G. (Ed.), Early railways 4, Papers from the Fourth International Early Railway Conference, Sudbury: Six Martlets Publishing, 2010, pp. 1-29. Shelfmark YC.2011.a.3466
Payton, P. Trevithick, Richard. In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, most recently updated 2007,, available electronically in the British Library reading rooms
Tyler, N. Trevithick's circle, Transactions of the Newcomen Society, 2007, 77(1), pp. 101-113. Available electronically in the British Library reading rooms

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.