“The Royal Institution must be saved” in the Telegraph

From the Telegraph (12 January 2010):

The Royal Institution must be saved
Losing this melting pot of science would be a tragedy, suggests Colin Blakemore.

What did the chattering classes of London do on a Friday night in the middle of the 19th century? Well, those who could secure a ticket would have been sitting in a steeply banked, uncomfortable lecture theatre in a neoclassical pile in the heart of Mayfair. Listening, spellbound, to the world’s leading scientists.

So popular were the regular Discourses at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, and so dense the clutter of carriages on a Friday evening, that Albemarle Street, which it dominates, was designated the first one-way street in London.

The published Proceedings of the meetings of the Royal Institution (the Ri as it is now known) read like a Who’s Who of discovery. From one volume of the Proceedings, chosen at random, I see that Chevalier Marconi gave a Discourse on Recent Advances in Wireless Telegraphy on 3 March 1905, while the next Friday, J J Thomson, Cavendish Professor from Cambridge and discover of the electron, spoke on The Structure of the Atom. What persuaded the great men of science to give up their Friday evenings? It wasn’t just to pass on a little of their genius to the well-heeled of Mayfair. It was because the Ri carried the imprimatur of the scientific establishment. And yet now the Ri finds itself in a financial crisis, which led to the departure of its director, Baroness Greenfield, and which threatens its existence.

The discussion between gentlemen scientists that led to the founding of the Ri took place in March 1799 in the house of Joseph Banks, then president of the Royal Society. An extraordinary feature of this new “Institution for Diffusing Knowledge” was that it was also an active centre for research of the highest quality. Humphry Davy, Michael Faraday, John Tyndall, James Dewar, William Bragg, Lawrence Bragg and George Porter all worked in the rabbit warren of labs hidden behind the classical façade of the Ri.

Ten of the chemical elements were discovered there. Fourteen of the Ri’s scientists won Nobel Prizes. And many of the most famous were also stars of the Ri’s public events. Faraday himself introduced both the Friday Discourses and the famous Christmas Lectures, of which he gave 19 himself.

Every generation sees science as the essence of modernity. Not surprising, then, that the history of science is too easily ignored. We think of public communication of science and engagement between scientists and the general public as a very modern enterprise.
In 1985, the geneticist Sir Walter Bodmer produced a report for the Royal Society that recommended greater effort to communicate the methods, achievements and benefits of science to the public. That challenge was taken up by the Royal Society, the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Ri itself – three venerable organisations.

Since then, organisations, activities, centres, festivals and prizes for scientific communication and debate have proliferated.
Even the idea of putting public science centres in the heart of active research labs is all the vogue. The new Centre of the Cell, suspended above the biomedical research benches of the Blizard Building, Queen Mary, University of London, has won plaudits for its novel approach to the communication of science.

Well, if what the Ri used to do is now being done so innovatively elsewhere, would its closure be anything more than a matter of passing on the baton of scientific communication?

It would be a disaster. In the burgeoning landscape of science as cultural enrichment and entertainment, the actual contribution of the Ri might not be missed that much. But, symbolically, the loss of the world’s first melting pot of science and public engagement at a time when science has never been more important would be a tragedy.

Colin Blakemore is professor of neuroscience at Oxford and Warwick

Published in: on January 14, 2010 at 3:49 pm  Comments (1)  
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BSHS: Three graduate students at the MA level

From BSHS:

The Department of History, Brock University, St. Catharines, Ontario is seeking three graduate students at the MA level.

One successful candidate will work with Prof. Elizabeth Neswald in the project “Engineering the Body. Thermodynamics, Social Technologies and the Practice of Nutrition”, funded by the Canadian Institute for Health Research, and will develop a major paper research project on a topic in the history of nutrition or food history in North America or Europe in the nineteenth to early twentieth centuries.

These Research assistantships would be for $3000 and $5000.  This funding would be on top of the department’s basic funding package.  Last year’s minimum entrance support was just over $13,000.  Additional monies can be provided in the form of Entrance Scholarships (as much as $2000).  Thus very high calibre applicants could obtain support of between $18,000 and $20,000.

Two graduate students will work with Prof. Elizabeth Neswald in the international “John Tyndall Correspondence Project”, funded by the National Science Foundation. Research interest or experience in 19c. history would be advantageous but is not required.

For further information, contact

dsamson@brocku.ca

Dr Daniel Samson:

dsamson@brocku.ca

Brock University

Dept of History

Graduate Programme Director

Published in: on December 25, 2009 at 5:22 pm  Leave a Comment  
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News from the History of Science Society

From HSS (10 December 2009):

The John Tyndall Correspondence Project
Bernard Lightman, York University
Michael Reidy, Montana State University
James Elwick, York University

Last October we learned that our application for a three-year National Science Foundation grant had been successful. The NSF grant will enable us to take a major step forward in completing the goals of our project: first, to publish a one-volume calendar of the correspondence of the Victorian physicist John Tyndall (1820-1893) and to issue multiple volumes of his collected correspondence, both in print and, eventually, in an accessible, searchable, on-line format; and second, to galvanize a community of scholars at varied stages in their careers – from graduate students to postdoctoral researchers to senior personnel – around themes raised through an intense study of John Tyndall. Now the project will be able to draw on the expertise of scholars from fourteen universities located in four countries that specialize in the history and philosophy of Victorian science. Though the main intellectual merit of the project will be the publication of Tyndall’s correspondence, we are putting graduate students at its center, thereby relying on a cooperative model of graduate student training and research that can be used for other similar large-scale endeavors. What we are creating is a unique, international, collaborative project that will provide scholars with an important resource that is difficult to access.

Tyndall was one of the most influential British scientists of the second half of the nineteenth century. As the successor to Davy and Faraday at the Royal Institution, Tyndall enjoyed a prominent place within the scientific elite. Due to his flamboyant lecturing style, he became well known as an eloquent public speaker for fashionable audiences. He was a member of the powerful group of scientific naturalists that included T. H. Huxley, Herbert Spencer, and Joseph Dalton Hooker, and became a leading figure in the debates over evolution. With a vast international network of scientific allies and colleagues, Tyndall’s influence reached beyond Britain. Tyndall made contributions to the advancement of scientific knowledge, though he is not known for making scientific discoveries of the highest order. He was among the first to explain the earth’s natural greenhouse effect and the role played in this process by gases such as carbon dioxide. He also undertook important research in electro-magnetism, thermodynamics, sound, glaciers, and spontaneous generation, among other subjects.

The first phase of the project — locating, collecting, and digitalizing all of the estimated 8,000 extant letters — is nearly complete. Grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and from the Mellon Foundation funded the first phase of the project at York University and provided for the transcription of approximately 2,000 letters. The NSF grant will enable us to finish the second phase of the project, completing the transcription of the rest of the letters, in the next three years. The NSF grant establishes a second center for the project at Montana State University, directed by Michael Reidy, that will coordinate the work of twelve scholars and their students, in addition to those working at York and Montana State. The team will include: Ruth Barton (Auckland), Janet Browne (Harvard), Gowan Dawson (Leicester), Graeme Gooday (Leeds), Piers Hale (Oklahoma), John Lynch (Arizona State), Iwan Morus (Aberystwyth), Elizabeth Neswald (Brock), Richard Noakes (Exeter), Simon Schaffer (Cambridge), Matthew Stanley (NYU), and Jim Strick (Frankland and Marshall). Montana State University will also be hiring a two-year postdoctoral researcher to help run the project, and in 2012 will host a conference on Tyndall and the science of the Victorian age, combined with a workshop for those editing the volumes of correspondence. For more information on the project, go to: http://www.yorku.ca/tyndall/.

Published in: on December 13, 2009 at 12:31 pm  Leave a Comment  

Tyndall Died Today in 1893

From Today in Science History:

John Tyndall (born 2 August 1820, died 4 December 1893). British physicist who demonstrated why the sky is blue. His initial scientific reputation was based on a study of diamagnetism. He carried out research on radiant heat, studied spontaneous generation and the germ theory of disease, glacier motion, sound, the diffusion of light in the atmosphere and a host of related topics. He showed that ozone was an oxygen cluster rather than a hydrogen compound, and invented the firemans respirator and made other less well-known inventions including better fog-horns. One of his most important inventions, the light pipe, has led to the development of fibre optics. The modern light instrument is known as the gastroscope, which enables internal observations of a patient’s stomach without surgery. Tyndall was a very popular lecturer.

TISH provides a quote:

Their business (those who believe in evolution) is not with the possible, but the actual – not with a world which mightbe, but with a world that is. This they explore with a courage not unmixed with reverance, and according to methods which, like the quality of a tree, are tested by their fruits. They have but one desire – to know the truth. They have but one fear – to believe a lie. (1870)

Does anyone know what this quote is from?

Published in: on December 5, 2009 at 9:17 am  Leave a Comment  
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York prof looks at the correspondence of scientist John Tyndall

From York’s Daily Bulletin (November 26, 2009):

York prof looks at the correspondence of scientist John Tyndall

What do the colour of the sky, the greenhouse effect and mountaineering have in common? The answer: John Tyndall (1820-1893), a leading figure in the 19th-century debates over evolution and a celebrated Victorian physicist. His research was expansive: he was the first person to explain why the sky is blue and the first to prove the greenhouse effect in the earth’s atmosphere. He was also a pioneering mountain climber. York humanities Professor Bernard Lightman and his international team of collaborators are hoping to shed light on his thinking.

Tyndall was a huge figure in scientific circles during the 19th century, but we don’t know a great deal about him. He is best remembered today for his controversial Belfast Address in 1874 to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in which he advocated the supremacy of scientific thought over religious belief. After that, it is as if he dropped off of the historical record. This is due in part to the fact that his correspondence was not readily available to be studied. Lightman and company are remedying this by combining international collaboration and modern technology to resurrect Tyndall’s correspondence.

Lightman, based in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, and his Montana State University co-applicant, Professor Michael Reidy, recently won US$580,000 in funding – to be disbursed over three years – from the United States National Science Foundation (similar to the Natural Sciences & Engineering Research Council of Canada). The pair are completing a research project titled “John Tyndall and Nineteenth-Century Science”, which involves locating, collecting, digitizing, transcribing, editing, annotating and eventually publishing John Tyndall’s correspondence, comprising more than 8,000 letters that are scattered throughout the world.

Lightman modelled this endeavour on the Darwin Correspondence Project, a similar but much larger UK-based undertaking involving the letters of Tyndall’s friend and contemporary, the famous naturalist Charles Darwin.

In preparing their grant application, Lightman and Reidy considered trying something unusual for humanities research, thinking it might
improve their chances of receiving the award. They proposed bringing the collaborative and organizational techniques of scientific research to humanities research – where researchers traditionally work alone, not in teams – and to see how education could benefit from new tools and practices. They also recognized it as an effective use of limited resources.

The Tyndall Correspondence Project, says Lightman, wouldn’t be possible without modern technology. “I wouldn’t have even conceived of doing this 10 or 15 years ago,” he says. The logistics would have been too overwhelming, says Lightman, and unlike the resources available to the Darwin Project’s researchers, the budget for Lightman’s project is comparatively small. So Lightman and his team – at universities in Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US – have leveraged the processing power of computers and the Internet to make the information-pooling of their decentralized operations more efficient.

The Royal Institution of Great Britain transferred most of the letters, about 6,000 of them, to microfilm. The remainder of the letters came from about 30 other archival locations. Lightman had them all digitized to TIFF format, allowing for electronic display and distribution. (The incongruity of sending 19th-century letters by e-mail doesn’t escape him.)

Transcriptions undergo a filtering process. Junior members of the team transcribe the letters, including annotations and palimpsests, and send the transcriptions to the more senior members – who are more familiar with the idiosyncrasies of Tyndall’s written words – for proofing. Senior members refine the transcription, eliminating errors and increasing accuracy.

A not-uncommon challenge that might be unfamiliar to contemporary writers is ink jar spills. Correspondents, not wishing to waste paper, frequently simply turned the page over and continued to write on the back. The team encountered many such problems, which took many forms.

Two of Lightman’s assistants are Bethune College academic adviser James Elwick, who is serving as the project coordinator, and York PhD candidate in history, Steve Bunn, who is working as the logistics coordinator. The pair have developed a number of techniques to facilitate transcription, a process based in trial and error. They started out thinking that optical character recognition technology – software that translates text on printed, typewritten or handwritten documents into electronically editable text – would be the perfect tool for them. However, they soon discovered it was only about 80 per cent accurate, creating more work as human transcribers were needed to verify the computer’s interpretation, and the technique was quickly abandoned. “You can’t divine the intention behind it, which is really the secret behind a lot of transcription,” says Elwick.

Nevertheless, Elwick and Bunn continued to explore different techniques to optimize the transcription process. For instance, they discovered the benefits of computer-voice playback. After researchers have transcribed a letter to a Microsoft Word document, they get a computer voice to read it back aloud as they review the original text of the letter. This allows them to proof the transcription without having to resort to moving their eyes back and forth between the original and the copy. To increase legibility, they often magnify and stretch the digitized images. To remove visual background clutter, they illuminate, darken or increase the contrast as required.

To enable international collaboration, the team started out trying to e-mail files to one another. However, the files were huge and file-size limits on e-mail constrained them. They tried Web-based e-mail systems like Google but, at 25 megabytes, they too were limiting. They tried using FTP sites, but they found them to be user-unfriendly. They then tried a service similar to York’s Dropbox, but it removed message attachments if not retrieved within seven days. They finally settled on a Web-based service that allows them to store information online and affords access to the information by various subscribers.

Complementing this, the pair discovered an inexpensive file management program that allows them to preview the contents of files before opening them, an hour-saving boon when exploring numerous files. It also tracks the accessing of files – who, when, what changes were made etc. – and allows researchers to leave messages for one another. It’s a virtual laboratory occupied by international collaborators.

Elwick is always on the lookout for extra tools and has discovered that new accessories often beget new capabilities. Recent additions to their collection include a Webcam, which he subsequently realized would come in very handy when training new and remote transcribers. They plan to use it for video-conferencing too. They also discovered some Web-based polling software that eases the task of scheduling meetings by removing the need for endless e-mailing back and forth.

Not all of the group’s activities occur remotely. In the summer of 2010, some members of the team will meet at a conference in Leeds, UK, followed by a conference on evolutionary naturalism at York in the spring of 2011. Lightman plans to have all the transcribing done in about three and a half more years. “The hope is that, by then, we’ll have people lined up to edit each volume of the correspondence,” says Lightman. A year later, he hopes to have the correspondence available to researchers both in hard-copy format and in a text-searchable version on the Web.

“We hope, in the end, to galvanize a community of scholars around themes raised through an intense study of John Tyndall,” said Lightman. “These themes include the relationship between science and religion, the popularization and professionalization of science, and advances in physics, glaciology, climatology and spontaneous generation, each of which individually and collectively played fundamental roles in the development of modern science.” In the end, his goal is to make the 19th-century figure of John Tyndall better known.

For more information on the Tyndall Correspondence Project, visit it online. For more on Lightman’s work as it relates to John Tyndall, see YFile, July 31, 2008.

Submitted by David Wallace, communications coordinator, Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies

Published in: on December 4, 2009 at 10:07 pm  Comments (1)  
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Tyndall in the News

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John Tyndall, Royal Institution of Great Britain, London (Photo by Michael D. Barton)

From Project Syndicate: The World of Ideas:

The Scientific Road to Copenhagen
Stephan Ramstorf

BERLIN – On June 10, 1859, six months before Charles Darwin published hisOrigin of Species , the physicist John Tyndall demonstrated a remarkable series of experiments at the Royal Institution in London. The meeting was chaired by Prince Albert. But neither he, nor Tyndall, nor anyone in their distinguished audience could possibly have anticipated the extent to which the experiments’ results would preoccupy the world 150 years later.

This month, thousands of people from all over the world, including many heads of state, will gather in Copenhagen to try to forge an agreement to drastically cut atmospheric emissions of an invisible, odorless gas: carbon dioxide.  Despite efforts by some leading countries to lower expectations ahead of the conference about what can and will be achieved, the meeting is still being called the most important conference since World War II.  And at the conference’s heart are the results of Tyndall’s experiments.

But the story starts even before Tyndall, with the French genius Joseph Fourier. An orphan who was educated by monks, Fourier was a professor at the age of 18, and became Napoleon’s governor in Egypt before returning to a career in science. In 1824, Fourier discovered why our planet’s climate is so warm – tens of degrees warmer than a simple calculation of its energy balance would suggest. The sun brings heat, and earth radiates heat back into space – but the numbers did not balance. Fourier realized that gases in our atmosphere trap heat. He called his discovery l’effet de serre – the greenhouse effect.

Read the rest of the piece here.

From the radio program Science Spin (Dubline City FM 103.2 FM):

Can incineration provide the answer to our waste disposal problems? Jackie Keaney of Indaver Ireland, and Ollan Herr, of the Zero Waste Alliance go head to head on the issue. Plate Tectonics is the concept up for explanation and discussion this week, with the help of John Gamble, Professor of Geology at University College Cork. This week we profile the life and scientific legacy of Carlow-born John Tyndall, in conversation with Roger Whatmore, Chief Executive Officer with the Tyndall National Institute, which was named in Tyndall’s honour.

Listen to the half-hour program here.

Published in: on December 3, 2009 at 9:09 am  Leave a Comment  
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London Trip – Royal Institution

I am in London right now, on a research trip to the archives of the Royal Institution, for Tyndall material, and at Kew on Thursday for J.D. Hooker material. Today I held in my hand a letter from Darwin to Tyndall that was inserted into one of Tyndall’s journals, the subject being of a biological nature. I am specifically looking for references to Darwin/evolution in Tyndall’s journals, notes, etc. Today I found some. Hopefully more tomorrow and Wednesday. Snapped a bunch of pictures of various exhibits, portraits, and areas of the Royal Institution. Enjoy!

John Tyndall, Royal Institution of Great Britain

John Tyndall, Royal Institution of Great Britain

Wednesday night I plan to see Creation at a theatre near my lodgings (which is the home of Darwin groupie Karen, who has been an online friend and whom I met on my trip to Cambridge in July). Friday I spend my day at the Natural History Museum and Darwin Centre (George Beccaloni wants to show me some of the Wallace Collection), and Saturday down to Downe to see Darwin’s home and laboratory for four decades. Sunday I fly home.

If only my bag (and my clothes) could get delivered to me, because it wasn’t at Heathrow when I got there. I am tired of wearing what I wore on Saturday.

Published in: on October 26, 2009 at 6:21 pm  Comments (4)  
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Tyndall Project Awarded an NSF Grant

The Tyndall Project has been awarded a National Science Foundation grant under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, allowing the project to get started at several other universities, including ASU. Here is the abstract for the grant:

This is a project to coordinate and complete the transcription of letters and other scholarly works of the Victorian physicist John Tyndall (1820-1893) as intiated by the John Tyndall Correspondence Project. Tyndall was one of the most influential scientists of the nineteenth century. He became a leading figure in the debates over evolution, defending Darwin against his harshest critics, and he published numerous essays and popular books on the role of science and the burgeoning scientist in broader culture. He was an eminent practicing physicist, publishing significant works in electro-magnetism, thermodynamics, sound, glaciers, global warming, and spontaneous generation. He was also an accomplished alpinist, largely responsible for the growth of mountaineering as a sport. In short, Tyndall stood at the intersection of some of the most important developments in science and society, and his correspondence touches on all of them. His published correspondence will interest humanists ranging from historians to literary scholars, as well as scientists, from glaciologists and climatologists to physicists and biologists. One of the primary goals of the project is to publish a one-volume calendar of Tyndall’s correspondence and to issue (a projected) ten volumes of his collected correspondence, both in print and eventually in an accessible, searchable, on-line format. The other primary goal is to galvanize a community of scholars at varied stages in their careers, from graduate students and postdoctoral researchers to junior and senior scholars, around themes raised through an intense study of John Tyndall. The project puts graduate students at the center of the project, thereby constructing a new cooperative model of graduate student training and research that can be used for other correspondence projects or similar large-scale endeavors. This is an innovative model of graduate education and training that will promote the development by graduate students of new research questions within a collaborative research project fostered at several of the top history of science and technology programs.

More information about the grant can be had here. My advisor at Montana State was the PI for this grant, and I assisted him in editing parts of the proposal and putting together the bibliography for it.

Published in: on October 6, 2009 at 10:22 am  Comments (1)  

19th-Century Caricature Prints with Tyndall, UPDATED

I updated my post “19th-Century Caricature Prints with Tyndall” with additional information regarding one of the caricatures. Check it out here.

Published in: on August 18, 2009 at 5:42 pm  Leave a Comment  

[Tyndall Blogged] All about hot air

From the NASA blog My Big Fat Planet (2009-08-13):

John Tyndall (1820-1893). Drawing by Roger Kammerer.

John Tyndall (1820-1893). Drawing by Roger Kammerer.

All about hot air: Paving the way

From Erik Conway, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

One of the burning questions (pun intended!) in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was why the Earth is so warm. A number of scientists, including the famous French polymath, Joseph Fourier, had calculated that it should be far colder than it actually is — cold enough, in fact, to be a frozen ball. And some of them had speculated that something about the atmosphere must be responsible for the Earth’s most fortunate, mainly unfrozen condition. The first person to show experimentally what the atmosphere did was an Irish physicist, John Tyndall.

Tyndall was born in 1820 in Leighlin Bridge, Ireland. Having finished a Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of Marburg, Germany, he took a job at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, a prestigious research organization, in 1853. (A man of many talents, he also happened to be a pioneering scientific mountaineer, climbing a variety of European mountains to study their glaciers.) Tyndall became interested in how both heat and magnetism were transmitted through various substances and, in 1859, turned his focus to gases. That May, he announced that he had found huge differences in the ability of various gases to transmit heat.

What he had discovered was that oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen had almost no impact on heat — they were transparent to it. But carbon dioxide, ozone and “aqueous vapor,” as Tyndall called water vapor, all had a big impact on the amount of heat they let through. Of these, water vapor trapped the most heat. Without this curious characteristic, he wrote, “the warmth of our fields and gardens would pour itself unrequited into space, and the sun would rise upon an island held fast in the iron grip of frost.” It was these gases and vapors that ‘blanketed’ the Earth and kept it warm.

He also suspected that changing amounts of these gases in the atmosphere were responsible for “all the mutations of climate which the researches of geologists reveal…” In other words, they might have caused the ice ages. Though Tyndall was not interested in the modern problem of global warming, his work is hugely relevant today. It took nearly another century before anyone was able to demonstrate that humans were increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere, forcing the world to slowly warm.

Erik is a historian based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Published in: on August 13, 2009 at 5:01 pm  Leave a Comment  
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