Tag Archives: history of science and technology

“Prince Albert – The Man Who Saved the Monarchy” by Andrew N. Wilson

Prince Albert: The Man Who Saved the Monarchy

Harper Collins Publishers, 2019. 390 pages plus bibliography, notes and index.

Biography is my choice of reading matter when I’m too tired for “heavy” books and have sated my urge to read junk. I’ve read about half of this book (the first half and the last chapter), and I will probably read the remaining chapters selectively.

Did Prince Albert (1819 – 1861), consort of Queen Victoria (1819 – 1901) actually “save the monarchy”? Wilson makes a convincing case. Why does the United Kingdom still (in 2020) have royalty, and royalty who matter? What happened to the hereditary monarchs of France? The princes of the early German principalities? Why are the other remaining royal families (in Scandinavia and Netherlands, for example) so diminished? (Wilson doesn’t entirely address this last question. I’d like to learn more.)

When Albert married young Queen Victoria in 1840, he had no official role. He was Victoria’s husband. His English was imperfect. He was regarded as an outsider of little importance. But he was exceptionally well educated, and had lots of energy and considerable self-confidence.

When Albert took on projects or directorships (which could have been merely symbolic), he contributed incisively. For example, he pointed out the deficiencies of the British university system and, at Cambridge University (where he served as Chancellor), he initiated reforms that vastly improved higher education, and not just for members of the social elite. (By the way, his appointment at Cambridge was controversial. Academic politics is nothing new!)

Albert understood and valued science, engineering and industry. Contemporaries noted that, although he was stiff and sometimes awkward at ceremonial events, he was easily approachable when surrounded by those who shared his scientific interests. Mutual respect developed, and England benefited, moving ahead of continental Europe in various fields.

This book provides a great opportunity to understand the country that, more than any other, engendered the United States. I recommend it highly. Wilson is a very prolific writer, and I look forward to checking out his fiction. His biographies range from Hitler to Darwin to Jesus. Followers of contemporary British royalty might be interested to know that Wilson wrote The Rise and Fall of the House of Windsor. In 1993!

“Enchantress of Numbers” by Jennifer Chiaverini

Enchantress of Numbers: A Novel of Ada Lovelace

This work of historical fiction is subtitled “A Novel of Ada Lovelace”. The long version of the protagonist’s name is Augusta Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace. Her mother was Annabella Milbanke Byron, wife of the stunningly famous Romantic era poet George Gordon, Lord Byron. The marriage of Milbanke and Byron was short – Byron was unpredictable, promiscuous and moody. (That’s putting it mildly.) Byron left England, and Ada never had the opportunity to know her father.

Ada’s childhood was lonely, but she always had access to tutors and her intellectual life blossomed. She was passionately attracted to mathematics and science, and met many of the leading scholars of her age. Her name is often mentioned in connection with early “calculation machines” which preceded the invention of computers. She died at age 36, of uterine cancer.

It’s hard to read this book without applying contemporary standards of social judgement. Jennifer Chiaverini deserves high praise for staying within the cultural and social context experienced by Ada Lovelace.

Jennifer Chiaverini has published many books, including a series of TWENTY volumes called The Elm Creek Quilts Novels. I would rather start with her other six volumes of historical fiction. The only series of such magnitude I ever attempted was Patrick O’Brien’s wonderful Aubrey/Maturin saga.

Having now read a little about Lord Byron, I should read some of his poetry, which is considered the height of the Romantic era verse. Poetry is not my strong suit. I hope I can persist.

“Chasing Heisenberg – The Race for the Atomic Bomb” by Michael Joseloff

Chasing Heisenberg: The Race for the Atom Bomb (Kindle Single)

This book appeals to two audiences:

  • World War II buffs
  • Readers interested in the history of science and technology

I studied chemistry, so I’m familiar with the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, published in 1927. When dealing with subatomic particles, you can’t know both the location and the wavelength. (I think that’s it.) I even studied quantum mechanics. Heavy going… Heisenberg’s research contributed to the “atomic age” in which we live.

Theoretical physics might have remained an obscure scientific obsession, but as World War II proceeded, it became a vital matter of Allied security to find out if Hitler might deploy an atomic weapon. Heisenberg, a loyal German, was at the head of the German atomic effort. Hence, the Alsos Mission, a military attempt to capture certain German scientists (before the Russians) and learn how far their research had progressed.

Equally interesting were descriptions of the Manhattan Project (America’s first nuclear reactor) and Los Alamos (where our nuclear weapons were developed.)

This narration reminds us that, when it was happening, the outcome of World War II seemed uncertain.

Afterthought on “The Cure for Catastrophe” by Robert Muir-Wood.

(See my earlier blog entry on November 20.)

This book afforded me the unusual pleasure of finding a friend within the pages! Well, not exactly – I found a surname: Redfield. Who did I know by that name? Dr. Elizabeth (Libby) Redfield Marsh, mentor, good friend and fellow Penn State graduate! In 1975, she made a phone call that changed my life. She was teaching at a small public college in New Jersey. Would I consider interviewing for a job? Mutual connections at Penn State had given her my name. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

I knew that Libby had grown up spending her summers at Woods Hole on Cape Cod, surrounded by scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Might she be related to William Redfield, mentioned in Muir-Wood’s book as a self trained “amateur” scientist of tremendous acumen, one of the first observers to recognize that hurricanes have a circular structure and move along somewhat predictable paths? Yes! William Redfield (a storekeeper from Middletown, CT) went on to become the first president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, founded in 1848 and now the world’s largest general scientific society.

Between the time of William Redfield and Elizabeth Redfield Marsh, the Redfield family produced a number of distinguished scientists. Her father, Arthur Redfield, was a meteorologist. Libby’s chosen academic field was geography, and she wrote about rural planning. The family tradition continues. One of her sons teaches geography and environmental studies at a private college in Pennsylvania. Another is a physician.

Here are some reasons why this personal anecdote seems important NOW:

  • Science as a basis for public policy is being denigrated by climate deniers, the anti-vaccine lobby and other groups. This disturbs me greatly. If not science, then what will be the basis for our decisions? I don’t dispute the role of values and intuition, but IF there is scientific data available on an issue, it should be carefully considered. We ignore it at our peril.
  • I love science as an expression of the human spirit. It lifts me up.
  • I value “citizen science”. Enthusiastic “amateurs” make important contributions in fields like entomology, ornithology and digitization. (Take my word on that last one.) I subscribe to the notion that children are all born scientists. The Redfield family was unusually successful at keeping scientific passions alive.

So here’s to the memory of Libby Marsh (1923? – 2009) and her scientific ancestors, amateur and academic! May their efforts be remembered and appreciated.

“The Wright Brothers” by David McCullough

Where shall I start? Wilbur and Orville Wright made their famous “first flight” on December 17, 1903. That designation is somewhat arbitrary. It was preceded by many unpowered flights, by the Wrights and others. Gliders had preoccupied many inventors. But on the day in question, Wilbur traveled 852 feet in 59 seconds, in a “flying machine” powered by a gasoline engine.

I have visited Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, where this event took place. It’s on the Outer Banks, where the wind always blows. The National Park Service maintains the Wright Brothers National Memorial. You can walk the 852 feet traversed by Wilbur Wright on December 17, 1903 and study displays explaining how the feat was accomplished.

At the National Memorial, the emphasis is on SCIENCE. Inspiration certainly played a part, but the Wrights were meticulously scientific. Discovering that accepted tables describing “lift” were incorrect, they built a wind tunnel and collected their own data. They studied everything they could get from earlier inventors, and they made endless observations of birds in flight. An important insight was that, not only must they build a suitable “machine”, but they themselves must LEARN TO FLY.

It’s a wonder they didn’t get killed. As soon as they created a plane that could carry two people, they agreed never to fly together, so that if there was a serious crash, one would remain to carry on their work.

Initially, the world took little notice of the Wright’s achievement. The first journalistic interest was from the editor of a newsletter about beekeeping.

As interesting as the two famous Wright brothers were (they had two not-famous older brothers), McCullough includes other family members who were interesting on their own.

Bishop Milton Wright was a Baptist minister and often traveled away from his family. He campaigned against Freemasonry, on the grounds that the secrecy involved was unacceptable for a responsible Christian. He observed the Sabbath as a day of rest, a practice continued by his sons even when they were in (more secular) Europe. Most importantly, he loved books and learning and trusted his children to educate themselves, sometimes allowing them to skip school when they were engrossed in reading.

The only Wright sibling to graduate from college was Katharine, the youngest and only daughter, who attended Oberlin and had a career as a high school teacher. Katharine was an early liberated woman! The whole family was well informed and sophisticated beyond what might have been expected in “middle America” at that time.

The cultural consequences of powered flight have been staggering. McCullough doesn’t attempt to explore them. What comes to mind for me is the military use of the airplane. See my review (October 9, 2013) of Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke – The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization. Why the end of civilization? Because aerial bombardment led to warfare in which there was NO distinction between combatants and civilians.

The Wright brothers were supremely civilized – educated, industrious, responsible and thoughtful. Only Orville survived to experience World War II. The amount of change he saw in his 77 years is hard to comprehend!

David McCullough is a wonderful writer. (See my review of Path Between the Seas – October 18, 2014). I think the next of his books that I want to read will be The Johnstown Flood. I spent Thanksgiving in Johnstown, PA, in 1972.

“Centennial of the Introduction of the Japanese beetle into North America near Philadelphia”, a lecture by Ken Frank

Now really, is this a thrilling title? Sounds like a real yawn, right?? Nope! Not when Ken Frank is telling the story. A mash-up of politics, science and human frailty! Lots of drama!

In this case, “near Philadelphia” means Riverton, NJ, on the Delaware River just north of the Tacony Palmyra Bridge. Right in my back yard.

Consider the timing, just before World War I. It was well known that introduced insect pests could wreak havoc on farming and the economy in general, but comprehensive regulatory controls were not in place.

The date of this unfortunate introduction is known with some precision. In 1916, agricultural inspectors found unfamiliar beetles at the Henry Dreer Nursery in Riverton. Perhaps they had wandered up from the American south? Further investigation was postponed.

Within a few years, due to the geometric population growth of the beetles, the situation was out of control. The only, long shot solution was applying a “scorched earth” policy to Dreer’s nursery – excavation, poisoning, fire…

Dreer fought back, accusing supporters of even relatively mild measures like quarantine of TREASON, because of interference with the economies of our World War allies. Dreer was publicly “outed” as the source of the appalling infestation. Ken Black compares Dreer’s response to that of climate deniers. Dreer’s political strength was formidable. When quarantine and embargo were finally imposed, they applied only to CORN. Nurseries were completely exempted from regulation.

The Japanese beetle continued its spread. Today it afflicts about half the continental United States, and the annual cost of control is estimated to be in the billions of dollars. California, not yet afflicted, takes stringent measures against Japanese beetles.

That’s not even half the story! This turned out to be a situation in which the “cure” was worse than the disease. The pesticide of choice used against the Japanese beetle was LEAD ARSENATE, a very slight improvement over the previously popular copper arsenate. The quantities recommended boggle the mind – 1500 pounds per acre.

There were several big intellectual disconnects here.

  • Nobody seemed to ask where the lead arsenate would end up.
  • Nobody seemed to consider its toxicity to mammals (including humans).
  • Nobody seemed to consider its toxicity to non target insects including potential natural enemies of the Japanese beetle.

Ken Frank took his investigation of this episode to Riverton, where he talked to residents, including a Master Gardener. Three citizens of Riverton came to hear his lecture. They provided insight into the area’s agricultural past, and shared their concern that they may still be living with the consequences of the very heavy application of LEAD ARSENATE in areas now occupied by suburban housing. They believe the incidence of cancer in the Riverton area may be abnormally high. (I know, as a former public health employee, how hard it is to define and evaluate a “cancer cluster”.)

Ken Frank credits the Japanese beetle outbreak and subsequent control efforts with inspiring Rachel Carson to investigate the impact of DDT on the environment. Carson was born in western Pennsylvania in 1907. She is credited with stimulating the American environmental movement which led to passage of major legislation in the early 1970s. Right when I graduated from college and jumped ship, leaving the field of chemistry to become a pollution control specialist!

Ken Frank’s lecture was great and I hope he writes an article soon, so it can be shared. There’s a great deal to be learned from this tale. We are still learning how to manage ourselves and our environment, and the complexities and demands on our scientific judgment continue to increase.

Ken Frank’s lecture took place at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, at a meeting of the American Entomological Society. Science is fun! Check out the Academy or the AES to get in on the action.

“Tuxedo Park” by Jennett Conant

This is a great book for those who want to understand the role of technology in World War II. Tuxedo Park focuses on the development of radar. It begins well before WWII, and offers a picture of science pursued in a culture totally different from the academic/industrial climate scientists experience today. Science between the Wars was pursued by both academics and talented, wealthy “amateurs”. One of these was Alfred Loomis. He built and staffed a world class laboratory for his own “entertainment”. Some of his entirely fundamental research later found practical application in vital defense technology.

I was especially interested in details about the time period when England expected to be invaded, and scientific equipment was hastily transported to the US to avoid having it fall into enemy hands. Steps were taken to insure that if the transporting ship was bombed, the vital equipment would sink, rather than float!

Much has been written about the nuclear fission and fusion and the Manhattan Project, but I found this discussion of the development of radar very compelling.

This is the third book by J Conant which I have read. I think Tuxedo Parkwas the best. Conant’s book about Julia Child drifted off topic to other people, and the one about Roald Dahl didn’t impress me very much. Here are the titles of these books: The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington, and A Covert Affair: Julia Child and Paul Child in the OSS.