Science vs. Manipulation



When Michael Faraday ran the Royal Institution, one of the oldest scientific organisations in the world, the 19th-century chemist took time to enter public discourse.
He ranted about dangerous pollution in the Thames.
He debunked the fad of table-turning, and blamed the educational system for allowing such nonsense to thrive.

Nearly 200 years later, scientists are still tackling bad thinking and big problems.
For Sarah Harper, an Oxford gerontologist who takes the helm proper at the Royal Institution on Tuesday, the rise of denialism, fake news and alternative facts, combined with rapid advances in research that raise deep questions for society, mean that a grasp of science, and all its uncertainties, has never seemed more vital.

“Science affects people’s lives on a daily basis now.
People increasingly need bodies that can provide trusted and open information, and when an issue isn’t black and white, to explain why there’s a debate and guide them through the evidence,” Harper said. “There is a real role for the RI to be a gold standard for scientific evidence.”

That means more than simply stating scientific results. Harper’s vision, in part at least, is for the RI to enhance its provision of information, and have more non-scientists join its debates on the fruits of scientific research. Crucially, she wants to lay bare the scientific process: the complexities of data analysis, and the often ambiguous, even opaque nature of scientific findings.

Harper is the first social scientist to become the RI’s director. She studied at Cambridge and Oxford, and worked as a BBC reporter and a producer on Newsnight before returning to academia. Since 2014 she has served on the prime minister’s Council for Science and Technology.
Her appointment to the RI from outside the ranks of the chemists and physicists who have often held the post reflects a desire from the institution’s trustees for a different approach. Harper wants the RI to be more inclusive, for science to work with the humanities and arts, the private sector and policy makers, so that the information it provides, and the debates it holds, are delivered in the most rounded context.

“Science is addressing huge global challenges that affect people’s lives.
You’ve got to consider the whole social, ethical, moral and political framing of debates,” she said.
“It’s important that the scientist is no longer someone who just sits in a lab. All young scientists should think about public engagement. How will their research affect the public? Questions that are important to the public should influence the questions they themselves are asking.”


blue butterflyThomas Say (1787-1834)
American entomology, or Descriptions of the insects of North America:
illustrated by coloured figures from original drawings executed from nature

As a boy, Thomas Say, born into a prominent Quaker family in Philadelphia, often visited the family garden, Bartram’s Garden, where he could take butterfly and beetle specimens to his great-uncle William.
A self-taught naturalist, he became an apothecary, and helped found the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia in 1812.
He served as librarian for the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, curator at the American Philosophical Society, and professor of natural history at the University of Pennsylvania
In 1816, he met Charles Alexandre Lesueur, a French naturalist, malacologist, and ichthyologist who soon became a member of the Academy and served as its curator until 1824.

To collect insects, Say made expeditions to the frontier, in spite of the risk of attacks by American Indians and the hazards of traveling in wild countryside.
In 1818, Say accompanied his friend William Maclure, then the ANSP president and father of American geology; Gerhard Troost, a geologist; and other members of the Academy on a geological expedition to the off-shore islands of Georgia and Florida, then a Spanish colony.

In 1819–20, Major Stephen Harriman Long led an exploration to the Rocky Mountains and the tributaries of the Missouri River, with Say as zoologist.
Their official account of this expedition included the first descriptions of the coyote, swift fox, western kingbird, band-tailed pigeon, rock wren, Say’s phoebe, lesser goldfinch, lark sparrow, lazuli bunting, and orange-crowned warbler.

In 1823, Say served as chief zoologist in Long’s expedition to the headwaters of the Mississippi River.
He traveled on the “Boatload of Knowledge” to the New Harmony Settlement in Indiana (1826–34), a utopian society experiment founded by Robert Owen.
He was accompanied by Maclure, Lesueur, Troost, and Francis Neef, an innovative education reformer.
There he later met Constantine Samuel Rafinesque-Schmaltz, another naturalist.

Say married Lucy Way Sistare, whom he had met as one of the passengers to New Harmony, near the settlement.
She was an artist and illustrator of specimens, as in the book American Conchology, and was elected as the first woman member of the Academy of Natural Sciences

Say was a modest and unassuming man, who lived frugally, like a hermit, in New Harmony. He abandoned commercial activities and devoted himself to his studies.
He died, apparently from typhoid fever, when he was 47 years old.

The quality of the plates, in his book on American insects, and the clarity of Say’s description won him immediate fame abroad, and he was made a foreign member of the Linnean Society of London.
Say named some 1,500 new species – many of his discoveries (such as the American dog tick) were crucial for the future study and control of disease in humans, livestock and crops



The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge

Portretten_van_Sir_Thomas_Gresham_en_Anne_Fernely_Rijksmuseum_anthonis morPortrait of Thomas Gresham
by Sir Anthonis Mor (c. 1517 – 1577)


Apart from some small sums to various charities, Sir Thomas Gresham (c. 1519 – 1579)— merchant and founder of the Royal Exchange, who acted on behalf of King Edward VI (1547-1553) and Edward’s half-sisters, queens Mary I (1553-1558) and Elizabeth I (1558-1603)—bequeathed the bulk of his property to his widow and her heirs, with the stipulation that after her death his own house in Bishopsgate Street and the rents from the Royal Exchange should be vested in the Corporation of London and the Mercers Company, for the purpose of instituting a college in which seven professors should read lectures, one each day of the week, in astronomy, geometry, physic, law, divinity, rhetoric and music.
Thus, Gresham College, the first institution of higher learning in London, came to be established in 1597.
The early success of the College led to the incorporation of the Royal Society in 1663, which pursued its activities at the College in Bishopsgate before moving to its own premises in Crane Court in 1710.

Influenced by the “new science“, as promoted by Francis Bacon in his New Atlantis, a committee in 1660 announced the formation of a “College for the Promoting of Physico-Mathematical Experimental Learning”, which would meet weekly to discuss science and run experiments. At the second meeting, Sir Robert Moray announced that the King approved of the gatherings, and a royal charter was signed, a second royal charter being signed in 1663, with the king noted as the founder and with the name of “the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge”. This initial royal favour has continued and, since then, every monarch has been the patron of the society.

Samuel Pepys (1633 – 1703), PRS (President of  the Royal Society), MP (member of parliament),  JP (justice of the peace), was born at the same time as a group of outstanding natural philosophers (today we would term them scientists) including Christopher Wren, Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, William Petty and Isaac Newton.
All these gentlemen were Fellows of the Royal Society, a Fellowship centered on conducting and discussing experiments and generating knowledge.
Pepys first attended a meeting of the Society in January 1661 with the instrument maker and inventor Ralph Greatorex, whereupon he found a “great company of persons of Honour”.
A fortnight after election Pepys attended a meeting of the Society “where, first Mr. Hooke read a second very curious Lecture about the late Comett, among other things … Then to the meeting … Here was very fine discourses – and experiments; but I do lacke philosophy enough to understand them, and so cannot remember them”.
Despite his inability to comprehend some of the concepts behind the experiments and discussions of the Society, Pepys’s enthusiasm for the pursuit of knowledge and the assistance he provided to the Society were admirable. In 1668 he gave the considerable sum of £40 to help construct a home for the Society. Pepys’s enviable book collection also reveals that he purchased all the chief scientific books published in London.
From the early 1600 onwards microscopes and telescopes began to reveal unknown worlds to a captivated public. As curator of experiments at the Royal Society, Robert Hooke gave weekly demonstrations and in 1665 published Micrographia, the world’s first popular work on microscopy. Pepys greatly admired Hooke, and a few weeks before his admission to the Society ordered a copy of Micrographia, finding it so captivating on receipt that he was kept awake till 2am reading it. He also ordered a fine microscope or ‘curious bauble’, and took to it with enthusiasm
He also prepared orders for the Clerks to keep minute books of meetings and to have these indexed, thereby winning the hearts of Royal Society archivists ever after.
Meanwhile, in his role as senior administrator to the Royal Navy, Pepys made great efforts to ensure naval recruits and officers received the best technical training available. His position as President of the Royal Society also strengthened links between the Royal Navy and the Royal Society which would further blossom with jointly organized expeditions such as Captain Cook’s Endeavour voyage (1768-71).

Arguably the most important event in the Royal Society’s history took place in this period: the publication of Isaac Newton’s Principia, which contains Newton’s universal laws of motion and gravitation. Edmond Halley FRS, as the editor of the Society’s journal, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, learned that Newton had solved the central problems of celestial mechanics and at Halley’s urging Newton agreed to arrange the manuscript for publication.
However, the Society could not meet the cost of publication as it was heavily financially involved in producing a lavishly illustrated natural history of fishDe historia piscium.
Pepys authorized the publication of Principia and the title page bears his name, forever linking him with Newton’s masterwork, for which Halley bore the cost of publication.
(Pepys also gave what eventually amounted to the considerable sum of £63 to the Society for the production of 60 of the 187 plates for the Historia Piscium.)

In Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica Newton defined space and time “not as they are well known to all”. Instead, he defined “true” time and space as “absolute” and explained:

Only I must observe, that the vulgar conceive those quantities under no other notions but from the relation they bear to perceptible objects. And it will be convenient to distinguish them into absolute and relative, true and apparent, mathematical and common. Instead of absolute places and motions, we use relative ones; and that without any inconvenience in common affairs;
but in philosophical discussions, we ought to step back from our senses, and consider things themselves, distinct from what are only perceptible measures of them.

Today three further Professorships have been added to the ones that were instituted at the founding of Gresham College in 1597:  Commerce, established in 1985, Environment, established in 2014, and Information Technology, established in 2015.

and W



marshal sunflowerAlexander Marshal (c.1620 – 1682)
English entomologist, gardener, and botanical artist, noted for the florilegium he compiled

We Need a Cure

Humanity is suffering from an illness the extent of which is not fully known, and the impact of this is being felt across the globe. It renders humankind unable to see the plants in their environment, and leaves us deeming the plant-life everywhere as nothing more than  background for more important things.

Take an image of a lion in the wild in Africa and ask anyone what they see. The answer you will invariably get is “a lion”. If you are lucky, you may get the answer “a wild lion”, or if you are extremely lucky, “a wild lion in Africa”.
Generally you won’t get the answer “The African savannah in the dry season with some amazing acacia scrub and a lion lying on a bed of dry red grass (Themeda triandra) in the shade of a really old sausage tree (Kigelia africana)”.

The picture is not just a picture of a lion. It’s a picture of a whole environment and the biodiversity within it, without which the lion cannot survive.
A human is in exactly the same position as the lion. However, we have forgotten our need for this web of which we are a part.
The inability even to see the vegetation surrounding us has been given a name; plant blindness

The number of garden designers is growing, and yet specialist plant nurseries, with their focused knowledge of the individual plants in their care, are closing.
Plants – living things – often become throwaway items used purely for decoration, with little acknowledgment given to their much deeper importance to the human state.

Plants are vitally important elements in our ecosystem that clothe us, feed us, give us the oxygen that we breathe, and the medicines that cure us.
They are carbon sinks that will allow us to reduce global warming, control the impact of drought, and filter pollution out of the air and the water.
They need to be understood as the complex living organisms, in their myriad of forms, which they truly are.

Plants need to become valued again, recognized, seen.
We need to find a cure for plant blindness, and quickly.

Robbie Blackhall-Miles is a modern day plant hunter’s propagator and gardener. He is interested in ancient families of plants and blogs about these on his website He also tweets as @fossilplants.

‘Does it matter that so many of the stories we tell take place in some ecological make-believe, where plants and animals are treated as little more than the living wallpaper of a stage set for human actions or as interchangeable ciphers for conveying life lessons?’

“the people who live in cities have lost their connexion with the earth; they hang, as it were, in the air, hover in all directions, and find no place where they can settle”

We are blasé, in the sense that Georg Simmel used that word in 1903, meaning “indifferent to the distinction between things”.
As we deplete our ability to denote and figure particular aspects of our places, so our competence for understanding and imagining possible relationships with non-human nature is correspondingly depleted.


Beatrix Whistler blackberriesBlackberries,
Beatrix Whistler (1857–1896)

We shake down acorns and pinenuts.  We don’t chop down the trees.
– Wintu Indian

Bucks County Landscape

Wm Lathrop
William Langson Lathrop (1859–1938)


Falling Stars

meteor‘Meteor seen over Hewit Common near York’ 
by Nathaniel Pigott  (1725–1804)


The Great Fireball of 1783

In the summer of 1783 the Montgolfier brothers flew the first successful hot-air balloon at Annonay in France, creating a craze for ballooning which swept Parisian society, and Henry Cavendish and Joseph Priestley continued their independent experiments on ‘inflammable air’ [hydrogen] and the chemical composition of water.

Sir Joseph Banks,  President of the Royal Society for over 41 years, was summering in Lincolnshire while Charles Blagden kept him apprised of scientific goings-on, opened Banks’s mail for him, and marshalled  the traffic at Banks’s house at 32 Soho Square – a continual back-and-forth flow of books, drawings, journals, newspapers, plant specimens and people

That same summer a large meteor was seen over England on the night of August 18th, passing rapidly over Scotland and travelling down the east coast of England – it was seen at Lincolnshire, where it appeared to break up, but the core continued, still blazing, more or less on its former trajectory– and at Ramsgate.  It was also seen from Brussels and France; and there was an unconfirmed sighting as far south as Rome. Blagden and Banks between them gathered reports of the event from across Britain and the Continent to attempt to estimate the meteor’s size, altitude, and speed; it was visible for a little under a minute, its altitude was estimated variously between 50 and 60 miles, it appeared about as large as the Moon’s disc (Blagden reckoned its diameter at roughly half a mile) and its speed was calculated at 20 miles per second.

These calculations of the meteor’s altitude and speed are remarkably plausible – and if Blagden’s estimate of its size is even marginally accurate then humanity can breathe a two-hundred-year’s delayed sigh of relief at its close shave.  Blagden didn’t see it like that, because he didn’t think meteors were physical bodies but electrical phenomena in the upper atmosphere.

When he heard that the Astronomer Royal, Nevill Maskelyne, was sending out queries of his own for an investigation of the comet, he wrote scoffingly to Banks:

‘I hear many years ago Professor [John] Winthrop, of Cambridge [Harvard] in new England, sent a paper to the R.S. containing a circumstantial theory of meteors as bodies revolving in very excentric elipses round our earth, & producing light by their effect upon our atmosphere.  This paper it was not thought proper to print; but most likely [Sir John] Pringle took his ideas from it, which Maskelyne is now going to hash up warm.  If every falling star be such a body, and it seems impossible to draw a line of distinction between them & the larger meteors, we are in high luck indeed that some of them, out of such an immense number, do not now & then miss their way, or get entangled in our atmosphere, and give us a smack.  That this good world may be preserved from such misfortunes is the hearty wish of

Your affectionate


Blagden argued in his published paper that it was precisely because meteors were seen so frequently, yet never felt actually to hit, that they weren’t orbiting bodies like comets.  His crowd-sourced data was remarkably reliable; and from his description of the meteor you would swear he imagined it as a solid body, but he’s forced away from that conclusion because he can’t find any evidence for the logical endpoint of that line of thought: namely, the meteor’s impact.

Crowd-sourcing observations in this way was an important tool, continues to be important to modern science, and is crucial to the history of science.

Blagden’s dismissive mention of John Winthrop, Hollis Professor of natural philosophy and Astronomy at Harvard is intriguing, in this context.  Winthrop’s theory that meteors were of extra-terrestrial origin was substantially correct, and his paper, which the Society hadn’t seen fit to publish at the time, is still in the archives; but he was also responsible for one of the first attempts to treat earthquakes as geological phenomena.
Like meteors and comets, these had largely been regarded prior to the scientific revolution as manifestations of divine wrath or providential omens; Winthrop’s study of the effects of the devastating Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which had also been felt in New England, attempted to measure the damage it caused and to quantify the forces involved, and he published the resulting lecture in Boston as well as sending an account to the Royal Society.

Famous contributing authors to Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, which was established in 1665, include Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday, and Charles Darwin.

Sir Joseph Banks took part in the Voyage of HMS Endeavour, exploration of Botany Bay with Captain James Cooke.


Preserved at Various Depths

sowerby shell

Copper plate engravings in black printing ink, hand colored with watercolor, with iron gall ink and graphite inscriptions, from
“Mineral conchology of Great Britain, or, Coloured figures and descriptions of those remains of testaceous animals, or shells which have been preserved at various times, and depths in the earth” by James Sowerby (1757 – 1822)

Father’s Day

Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity

Horace Mann

Published in: on June 14, 2014 at 11:04 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Adam Names the Animals In the Garden of Eden

adam naming animals in garden - saveryRoelandt Savery  (1576 – 1639)

Nature, in its ministry to man, is not only the material, but is also the process and the result. All the parts incessantly work into each other’s hands for the profit of man. The wind sows the seed; the sun evaporates the sea; the wind blows the vapor to the field; the ice, on the other side of the planet, condenses rain on this; the rain feeds the plant; the plant feeds the animal; and thus the endless circulations of the divine charity nourish man —
. . . .  that spirit, that is, the Supreme Being, does not build up nature around us, but puts it forth through us —-

Ralph Waldo 
Emerson (May 25, 1803 – April 27, 1882)