Showing posts with label science. Show all posts
Showing posts with label science. Show all posts

Monday, August 18, 2014

James Gleick - Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton's copious papers began to appear at auction houses in the early 20th century. By 1936 when interest had waned somewhat, a trunk went up for sale at Sotheby's containing manuscripts with some 3 million of Newton's words. John Maynard Keynes bought much of them, and helped to uncover an Isaac Newton that few had guessed at in the 2 hundred odd years since his death. The documents inside helped expose Newton "the alchemist; the heretical theologian" rather than the rational, mechanical scientist of tradition.

The great strength of James Gleick's short biography is that it helps us understand the whole Newton. Both the man who hide away from the world, jealously guarding his knowledge and discovery, almost fearing to publish, but who made enormous breakthroughs in mathematics and physics and the Newton who spent much of his life trying to work out how to turn base metal into gold; rigorously studied the Bible to convince himself that the question of the theological Trinity was a "fraud" and engaged in long protracted polemics and feuds with other great thinkers.

Indeed, Gleick's description of Newton's approach to theological questions demonstrates Newton's scientific method. Newton "compared the Scriptures in the new English translation [of the Bible] and in the ancient languages; he collected Bibles in Latin, Greek, Hebrew and French. He sought out and mastered the writings of the early fathers of the church." Newton tested his ideas, searched for evidence and examined it until he could come to his own conclusions. In this case, his conclusion was heretical, without a special dispensation from the king he would never have been able to take his mathematics seat at Cambridge because Newton couldn't bring himself to take the holy orders required. When he got the dispensation, he didn't move on, rather he "perfected his heresy through decade of his life and millions of words."

Newton wanted to understand the universe, and god was part of that. As Gleick explains, "if we could decipher the prophecies and the messages, we would know a God of order, not chaos; of laws, not confusion. Newton plumbed both nature and history to find out God's plan. He rarely attended church."

Gleick's book looks at this aspect of Newton's life but doesn't neglect the more well known parts. His invention of calculus, which he hide from the world for decades, until his feud with Liebniz. His work on tides, which apparently he did from first principles, without ever seeing the sea. His discoveries in optics, and most of all, his work on gravitational attraction. Newton wrote millions of words on these topics, from his earliest years he was an obsessive list maker, note taker, writer and doodler. His brain seems to have been on fire constantly. His fame came late. But when it did, Newton seized it, protected it and fought those who challenged him. Newton ended up very rich, heirless and world renowned even if, for much of his life, words or notation did not yet exist for the ideas he was inventing and the thoughts he was having.

Yet for all its strength, this book didn't feel adequate. I enjoyed reading it, in fact this is the second time I've done so. James Gleick peppers the book with literary quotes, poetry and Newton's own words. But it is too short, and I didn't feel like I'd got to understand Newton, merely that I'd been introduced to him and his ideas and I needed a deeper, longer biography. Nevertheless this is an excellent place to start.

Related Reviews

Sobel - Galileo's Daughter
Jardine - Ingenious Pursuits

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Elizabeth Kolbert - The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

Elizabeth Kolbert begins her book on the current biodiversity crisis with a damning summary of the situation. After visiting Panama and meeting locals and scientists who report an enormous crash in the number of frogs in the rainforests, she writes

"Today, amphibians enjoy the dubious distinction of being the world's most endangered class of animals; it's been calculated that the group's extinction rate could be as much as forty-five thousand times higher than the background rate. But extinction rates among many other groups are approaching amphibian levels. Its is estimated that one-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all fresh-water mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion."

Kolbert explores the nature of extinction, from the sudden impact that obliterated the dinosaurs and almost all life on the planet, to the more gradual dying off that takes place as environments change. The book looks at how the historical "great" extinctions, including the dinosaurs and the enormous transformations of the oceans that saw the wiping out of animals like the ammonites. But this serves merely as the backdrop to explain just how different the mass extinctions we face are today.

The scale of the biodiversity crisis lies rooted in the expansion of human society across the planet. Many of the changes, like the dying off of the amphibians in Panama, have a single reason (in that case a particular fungus), others are linked to the environmental changes that are taking place - particularly climate change, which is warming the world, changing weather patterns and making the seas more acidic. All of these, even the fungus, have a common theme - it is human society that is making them worse.

Take the question of "invasive species" - animals or plants that are alien to a particular ecology, and when introduced can thrive at the expense of localised flora and fauna. Global trade networks have facilitated the spread of animals, large and small. Such that "every year more non-indigenous species of mammals,birds, amphibians, turtles, lizards and snakes are brought into the US than the country has native species of these groups." The fungus that destroys enormous numbers of frogs in Panama is a much smaller example of this.

A bigger problem is the way that humans encourage the creation of island ecologies. The splitting up of the rainforest is an example of this. Species may not cross a patch of open land, such as a road or a cleared area, so their numbers may not be able to spread to escape a changing environment, or find enough mates to procreate. This effect is well known in nature - isolated groups of species tend to die out over time as numbers dwindle. Human society makes it worse.

Along the way, as Kolbert explores the various examples and causes of extinction, Kolbert meets many scientists and activists who are trying to save individual species or groups of them. She meets brilliant individuals desperately trying to understand what is changing in the world and why. Frequently they have very bleak outlooks. That people want to avoid animals and plants going extinct demonstrates how much people care about the planet's environment. The problem is though, a political and economic system that puts the interest of multinational corporations before the planet and the myriad of species that live on it. Until we start to challenge the unsustainable nature of capitalism, we are doomed to see many more species die out. Kolbert's book is a brilliant, but tragic introduction to the scale of the problem we have.

Related Reviews

Lynas - Sixth Degrees
Pearce - The Last Generation
Pollack - A World Without Ice
Foster - The Ecological Revolution
Foster - Marx's Ecology

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Robin Dunbar - Human Evolution

Early in this book, Robin Dunbar explains the importance of an introductory work on human evolution. He writes,

"we share with the other great apes a long history, a largely common genetic heritage, a similar physiology, advanced cognitive abilities that permit cultural learning and exchange, and a gathering and hunting way of life. And yet we are not just great apes.... The substantive difference lies in our cognition, and what we can do inside our minds."

Later he concludes, with a central theme of the book, that "what underpins all this cultural activity is, of course, our big brains, and this might ultimately be said to be what distinguishes us from the other great apes."

Dunbar's ambition is excellent. To demonstrate how we have arisen from the animal kingdom, yet are also different, is very important as much of what else we can say about human society depends upon this. To do so in an introductory volume accessible to the interested reader is laudable. Yet I fear this book fails to achieve what it aims to, because the authors framework boils down to evolutionary psychology that fails to develop beyond a mechanical approach to biology.

Take one of the central themes of the book. The "social brain". Robin Dunbar explains what he means by this and some of the consequences.

"The social brain relationship manifests itself in primates as a cognitive limit on social group size and brain size. The social brain hypothesis has been given a significant boost by a recent spate of neuroimaging studies demonstrating that the absolute volume of key brain regions correlates with social network at the individual level (including the number of Facebook friends), both in humans and in monkeys."

Examining the data gives Dunbar a "predicted group size" of around 150 people. He illustrates the accuracy of this figure with various figures - neolithic villages had 150-200 people in them, the average village in the Doomesday Book had a population of 150, Christmas card distribution lists are on average 154, and Gore-Tex factory unit sizes are 150. The smallest unit in modern armies, that can function on its own, we are told, is the company with an average size of 150.

The problem is, that these cultural restricted, and somewhat arbitrary figures (154 Christmas cards??) seem extremely unlikely to be derived from brain size. Hunter-gatherer band size and medieval village populations had for instance, much more to do with availability of food. Factory unit sizes are determined by potential profits, markets and availability of labour, rather than the ability of humans to network through their social brains.

The bottom line, Dunbar says, is that that "the social brain hypothesis provides us with a precise equation for predicting social group size from brain size." Unfortunately, in doing so, it appears to me to ignore almost everything else about our interactions as a species with each other, and the natural world; in particular the changing economic relations we construct to organise our way of life.

This is not to suggest that Dunbar's book is entirely without merit. But his approach is stunningly reductionist. For instance, he concentrates very much on "time budgets" when studying and comparing different species. This is an approach that basically means breaking down an animal's (or human) time into parts and working out how much time must be spent eating, sourcing food, grooming and sleeping to achieve all the necessary rest, energy and social interaction to make the species hold together.

The problem with this approach is it leads to maths like the following

"If laughter supplemented grooming and was three times more efficient than grooming on its own, then it would have reduced this requirement to a third, or 6.2 percent and 7.8 per cent of the day respectively. This would bring us savings of 12 and 15.5 percentage points for the two species, which, combined with the 12.5 percentage points we gained from climate change, bipedalism and the expensive tissue hypothesis, would allow us to save 24.5 and 28 percentage points from the two species' time budgets."

Now there are a lot of ifs, buts and hypothesises here. But the bigger problem is that extrapolating so much from the animal kingdom and making decisions about human lives can only take you so far. We are left with a mechanical interpretation of modern humans that doesn't do what Dunbar sets out to do, i.e. understand why we are more than apes.

Secondly, some of this reads like a clever, "just so" story. With humans evolving solutions to solve a time-budget issue, but who cannot possibly have had the time-budget issue and survived. Evolution doesn't proceed because of a problem that will occur in the future, but as a response to changing circumstances in the here and now. So Neanderthals can't have learnt to cook to solve a time budget crisis, but must have found that learning to cook, changed other aspects of their life. Dunbar makes this mistake explicit, when he writes about how the gestation of human children changed.

"The compromise solution that our ancestors came up with was to reduce the length of gestation to the absolute minimum needed to produce a baby that could just survive on its own."


Early species of humans try to solve their time budget crisis
Biologically this is what happened. But the idea that this was a "compromise solution" implies that it was a choice made by humans (or at least females). This is just bad science.

In his final analysis, Robin Dunbar concludes that

"The real story of how we came to be who we are beings with the appearance of the first Homo species... From there on in, it was a constant battle with time budgets under pressure from environmental factors that were selecting for ever larger community sizes..."

The problem with this is that it narrows humans down to simple victims of circumstance. Except, earlier in the book, Dunbar has shown how even the earliest humans developed tools to change and alter their environment. Indeed, to me, this is the missing link in Dunbar's analysis. We aren't simply products of our biology interacting with our environment, but we have, through our labour, altered our environment to improve our ability to survive. Thus we have shaped the world around us, and thus helped to shape our own biology, through learning to hunt, to cook, to cut trees, to dig holes and eventually to grow food and build societies were not everyone has to spend their whole lives producing food. Thus Dunbar's book, for all its strengths in explaining our convoluted history, cannot actually explain why we are what we are, and answer his own question. It is a great disappointment.

Related Reviews

Rose - The 21st Century Brain
Finlayson - The Humans Who Went Extinct
Stringer - The Origin of Our Species

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Steven Rose - The 21st-Century Brain

How does the peculiar lump of grey matter in our head think? How does it store memories? How does it enable us to breathe and swallow, to hold things, to flinch from pain? Is our brain the same as that of a monkey? Can single celled animals learn?

All these fascinating questions are addressed by Steven Rose's enormously enjoyable 21st Century Brain. Where possible he answers in a style that mixes detailed science with accessible writing. Where we don't know, Rose tells us how close we are to finding out, but most importantly he tells us how science got to where we are today. He also is quick to point out the problems with much of the historical research into the brain, and were problems remain today.

For the dialectical scientist, the brain is not simply an unchanging lump of matter. Rose is keen to emphasize that the brain, and its functionality, is part of an evolving, changing structure that has a history. This history has shaped the physical structure of the brain, but it has also shaped how individual humans think, remember and learn. Key to this is of course evolution, and in some of the most fascinating science writing I have ever read, Rose traces the likely evolutionary development that takes us from the soup of chemicals on the very early earth, through small cellular animals and to today's complex animal brains. Studying human brains "reveals their ancestry. Their basic biochemistry was essentially fixed at the dawn of evolutionary time, with the emergence of cells." Though obviously the has been enormous evolutionary development since then.

But there is a further history, the brain doesn't arrive full-formed in a new-born baby. It develops and grows, and this process is almost as fascinating and the breathtaking story of evolution. Importantly, for Rose, "nothing in biology makes sense except in the lights of its own history." The brain itself is a "marvellous product and process, the result of aeons of evolution and for each human adult decades of development." This idea of the brain as a process is a particularly important one for Rose, who sees its working as ever-changing, developing and growing, rather than a static, fixed set of structures and material.

We might think that the brain is a collection of specialist areas. With a bit that deals with seeing, a part that controls walking, and another for memory. While this is how the brain was often thought of historically, scientific evidence doesn't bear this out. As Rose says,

"One must consider the workings of the brain not merely in terms of three dimensional spatial anatomical connectivity but in the time dimension as well. Cells that fire together bind together. Once again, the message is that brain processes depend on history as well as geography".

The book deals with the development of the brain, but also its ageing process, including disease and death. The final chapters of the book look at attempts to deal with disease or memory lose. But Rose challenges those who simply see these problems as simply ones of chemistry, looking for the perfect drug or fix. Reductionist medicine, as he calls it, that "seek the explanations of many of our troubles in the presence in our brain of such malfunctioning molecules". Such medical procedures also lead to a situation where, US researchers are apparently trying to understand the neural processes involved in choosing between Coke and Pepsi.

This contrasts with Rose's understanding;

"Evolutionary history explains how we got to have the brains we posses today. Developmental history explains how individual persons emerge; social and cultural history provide the context which constrains and shapes that development; and individual life history shaped by culture, society and technology terminates in age and ultimately death."

Rose's book is a fascinating one. He wears his politics clear, raging at those that look for genes or patterns in the brain that suggest individuals are prone to violence, or crime, but don't consider those who drop bombs on Iraq as behaving wrongly.

But it is also Rose's politics that help shape his vision of the dialectic between humans, biology and society. Indeed his book finishes on a hopeful note, precisely because his vision of medical science is not one constrained by finding the correct pill or drug, but sees our biology as part of something much wider.

Related Reviews

Levins & Lewontin - The Dialectical Biologist

Friday, December 13, 2013

Richard Levins & Richard Lewontin - The Dialectical Biologist

At first glance, some might think this is an extremely odd title for a book. After all, dialectics is essentially a philosophical term and biology is, well, science. But the author's purpose in bringing together these essays is more to argue that a dialectical approach to science, both in terms of scientific research and practice, as well as understanding the position of science in society, benefits immensely from a dialectical method. Indeed, science, they argue, is better when practiced dialectically.

So what does that mean? Firstly the authors begin from a radical position. "We believe that science, in all its sense, is a social process that both causes and is caused by social organisation." This is very different to the majority of other scientists, who often, as the authors argue, separate out specific points of science from wider contexts, social and indeed scientific. Some of the problems with this approach are outlined in this quote from the authors, pointing out the dangers in looking at only on aspect of an organisms biology:

"The mammalian ear is obviously an organ of hearing, but it has other properties as well. For acoustic reasons it is a thin organ with a large surface area, the blood vessels cannot be deep, so heat is very readily lost. In fact, desert mammals often have extraordinarily large ears that serve as organs of temperature regulation. In this case a physical by-product of the evolution of an organ had properties that themselves became the objects of [evolutionary] selection under the special conditions of the desert."

By only looking at one aspect of a scientific question, one can miss wider questions. A similar problem can occur when trying to understand organisms outside of wider environments. While this approach can be useful, isolating particular aspects of behaviour or biology to illuminate others,

"it eventually becomes an obstacle to further understanding; the division of the world into mutually exclusive categories may be logically satisfying, but in scientific activity no nontrivial classifications seem to be really mutually exclusive. Eventually their interpenetration becomes a primary concern of further research."

So, in terms of understanding organisms in the wider world;

"'Environment' cannot be understood merely as surroundings, not matter how dynamically. It is also way of life; the activity of the organism sets the stage for its own evolution."

The benefit of this book is the authors root such statements in clear examples, so,

"To understand the evolution of the sea lion from a primitive carnivore ancestor, we must support that at first the water was only a marginal habitat... A slight evolution of the animal to meet these demands made the aquatic environment a more significant part of the energetic expenditure of the proto-sea lion, so a shift in selective forces operated instantaneously on the shape of its limbs. Each change in the animal made the environment more aquatic, and each induced change in the environment led to further evolution of the animal."

The dialectical interaction between different aspects of the natural world here is merely one aspect of the book. Other sections look at the way that science within capitalist society is shaped by and shapes wider economic questions which in turn shape scientific and research needs. There is a particularly useful chapter here on agriculture.

Though is book is dated in parts, due to the data for some chapters stemming from the 1970s or 80s. The general political arguments hold sway and it should remain required reading for those interested in science and society. Interestingly the authors display an excellent sense of humour and the inclusion of work by Isidore Nabi, a fake scientist created to expose problems of mechanical scientific approaches are a welcome break from the more difficult chapters.

Related Reviews

Molyneux - The Point Is To Change It
Carson - Silent Spring

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Richard Holmes - The Age of Wonder

The end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th saw an explosion in scientific and technological development. It is during this period that the foundation for modern science was laid.

Richard Holmes' book is an extraordinarily enjoyable and informative exploration of this time. He tells the story of the "Age of Wonder" through the interlocking lives of several great scientists. Framing the story is the life of Joseph Banks, who in 1796 arrived in Tahiti, a young biologist setting out to explore those "utopian" islands. What Banks found there, apart from the love and passions of a young man, helped put start him on a lifetime of encouraging exploration and science wherever he could.

Banks was one of the most important presidents of the Royal Society. During his time, he encouraged many young scientists, finding funding, introducing them to each other and sharing knowledge, expertise and on occasion equipment. Through Banks, we are introduced to many of the other great scientists of the time. Humphry Davy who radically transformed safety in coalmines and made many discoveries in the fields of chemistry and physics. William and Caroline Herschel who transformed astronomy, not simply through their discoveries, but also through their methods of systematic observation, their invention and manufacture of new equipment and their scientific theories. Holmes also tells us about the technological "fads" that followed on the back of new discoveries - the first balloon flyers and the sudden thirst for African exploration.

But this is more than the story of inventions and scientific endeavor. Holmes interweaves the stories of these scientists with changing cultural and social ideas. Here, for instance, he shows how William Hershel's "nebulae hypothesis" for the formation of stars, was developed further by Pierre Laplace. Laplace extended this hypothesis to the formation of the solar system in a 1799 book.

"In effect he reasoned that the sun had slowly condensed out of a nebulous cloud of stardust, and then spun off our entire planetary system, just as in a thousand other star systems. THere was no special act of Creation. In this way he was able to give a purely materialist account of the creation of the earth, the moon and all the planets. No divine intervention or Genesis was required, nor was it visible anywhere else in the universe."

Science was challenging some of society's most fundamental ideas. Sometimes the scientific revolution was allied with, or came close to political revolution. Humphry Davy told an audience at one of his amazingly popular lectures, after demonstrating primitive electrical experiments, that they witnessing;

"a new influence... which has enabled man to produce from combinations of dead matter effects which were formerly occasioned only animal organs".

This was revolutionary science, but Davy stopped short of political revolutionary conclusions;

"The guardians of civilization and of refinement, the most powerful and respected members of society, are daily growing more attentive to the realities of life, and, giving up many of the unnecessary enjoyments in consequence of the desire to be useful, are becoming the friends and protectors of the labouring part of the community."

Despite his revolutionary science, Davy wanted no significant change from the status quo, "the unequal division of property and of labour...are the sources of power in civilized life, and its moving causes, and even its very soul". Not for the Royal Society would their be any taste of the French Revolution, for this was a period when science was being bent towards the pursuit of industry, and if the scientists thought that would bring a better and more rational society, that that was good. Davy's lamp undoubtedly saved the lives of thousands of miners across Europe. It also helped the mine owners continue to exploit their workers in the most appalling of conditions.

But this is not a just a tale of science and industry. The book is littered with quotations from poets and authors. Davy's enthusiasm for electricity, helped inspire Mary Shelley to write her most famous novel. But other scientists, like Herschel, inspired the other Shelley. In Prometheus Unbound, Shelley explores "Herschel's new cosmology and Davy's chemistry";

Then see those million worlds which burn and roll
Around us; their inhabitants beheld
My sphere'ed light wane in wide heaven

There is much in this wonderful book to inspire further thought and reading. I was particularly struck by the brother and sister astronomers, William and Caroline Herschel. The later became the first woman paid to study science, their lives are fascinating and their discoveries immense. I hope to read more, particularly about Caroline who had to struggle against her own upbringing, as well as a society that didn't take kindly to women playing male roles.

If I have one criticism, it is that Richard Holmes doesn't locate the changing scientific world more clearly in a changing economic and social world. Capitalism was spreading rapidly through the world as demonstrated by the chapter on African exploration. It needed science and technology to further the accumulation of capital, to both understand the world, and tame it. The explosion of scientific and technological development in the period covered by this book has its roots in the scientific revolution that began with Newton and the early scientists. But a maturer capitalism needed a more systematic and professional science that could solve its technological problems and help the bosses make more money.

Nonetheless, this is a minor absence in a book that deserves to be widely read, by those who are interested in the biography and history of early scientists, as well as those trying to understand the origins of the modern world. Highly recommended.

Related Reviews

 Jardine - Ingenious Pursuits: Building the Scientific Revolution

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Matthew Brzezinski - Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Rivalries that Ignited the Space Race

This is a very readable, interesting and entertaining introduction to the earliest years of the Space Race. It concentrates on Russia' development of rocket technology and the run up to the launches of the first two man made objects to orbit the Earth in late 1957.

What makes the story interesting is less the technical aspects to this enormous scientific breakthrough, but the political and social contexts of the early years of the Cold War. What is clear from Brzezinski's book is that neither the Soviet Union nor the United States had any particular interest in reaching space. A few scientists and engineers, such as the former German scientist (and Nazi) Werner von Braun, did. But they were a minority within the rocket programmes and certainly did not have much influence on the politicians and political decision makers.

Russia's missile program arose as a result of their inability to compete with the military advancements of the United States. Following on from the doctrine of the Second World War, the US was banking on growing its military might based on air power. Hundreds of massive bombers could threaten the Soviet Union with nuclear annihilation through their long range. Key military and political figures in Washington hyped up the idea of the Soviet Union having a comparable air force and the US engaged in a bomber arms race faced with the threat of nuclear attack.

But this was built on lies. The USSR didn't have the bomber fleets and had no ability to build on a comparable level with the US. They could and did begin to develop nuclear missiles. These they felt would enable them to threaten the US at a much reduced cost. Khrushchev in particular needed the financial leeway to offer some improvements and reforms to Russia's population.

When Sputnik was launched, it terrified the American people and shocked the US government to the core. In hindsight, its clear that President Eisenhower came close to losing his position as the media and people sought a scapegoat for the new threat to the country. Indeed, his handling of the crisis, is a textbook example of how not to deal with the press.

By banking on bombers, the US had starved their missile programmes of cash. This meant their technology was far behind that of the Russians, even through they had the best German scientists and the majority of the Nazi rocket technology. One fascinating aspect to this, is how the US military were desperate to avoid von Braun and his colleagues even thinking about going to space - they tasked someone with the job of checking they didn't fuel the final stages of test rockets so that the scientists couldn't orbit something "accidentally".

Sputnik was laucnhed as a propaganda tool. It almost didn't happen, because as was the case in the US, those holding the purse strings were only interested in the military potential for rockets. The resultant propaganda coup (and the follow up when they launched a dog on the second rocket) stunned the Russian leadership as much as the Americans, though Khrushchev recovered faster.

The book finishes rather abruptly, with the US finally getting a much smaller satellite into space. Brzezinski implies that once the US had got over its shock, it rapidly set about the scientific and civilian conquest of space, while the Russian's languished with the death of their key rocket scientist. I felt this was a little limited, particularly given that once they had reached the moon, the US clearly decided it had won the space race and give up on serious manned space exploration. Because the US was engaged in a Cold War confrontation with Russia, money for its space programme dried up rapidly when that competition was won. The success of the US moon shots must be contrasted with the complete abandonment of the field from the mid 1970s onward. But this is a minor criticism of a very useful and interesting book on the history of the early space race which locates it in the midst of military and economic competition, rather than the desire to understand the universe.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

E.E.Evans-Pritchard - Kinship and Marriage among the Nuer

Before reading this review, I would encourage you to read my review of Evans-Pritchard's earlier book The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People. 

Evans-Pritchard's works on the Nuer people are classics of anthropology and even though they were written over 70 years ago, they are still of fundamental importance in understanding human relations in pre and early class societies. He described communities where private property played a fundamentally different role in human society, where collective organisation dominated in a way that seems completely alien to us today and where political organisation was not about the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a small minority but rather about the common interests of wider society.

In this second volume Evans-Pritchard develops some of these themes and looks at further aspects of Nuer society. In particular he examines the complex social organisation around marriage and kinship, relationships between human beings, that have very important ramifications for wider Nuer society.

For the Nuer relationships between family groups are the most fundamental aspects of society. These family groups however are very different from the family that we know from modern capitalism. Far from a couple having a number of children, there is a wider grouping of individuals who are seen as being the family. In her extremely useful introduction, the anthropologist Wendy James comments that there is:

"A vivid Nuer image for this... that of the beast with four legs - right hindleg, father's brother; left hindleg, mother's brother; right foreleg, father's sister; left foreleg, mother's sister".

Lineage in Nuer society is not through Patriarchal lines; as Wendy James comments:

"Lineage continuity thus depends not on the male fertility of a given community but on its economic and political ability to transfer bridewealth and marry wives to the names of its members (including some women and some deceased men) and to recruit new persons through adoption and other means."

This means that it can be difficult to comprehend family relationships amongst the Nuer for those of us used to our version of the family. Children for instance have different names depending on whether they are living with their father or mother.

Sex features widely in this book. To understand the Nuer is to understand how they reproduce the next generation of their community. This involves complex exchanges of wealth (cattle) and even more complex and ever changing social relationships, that I will come onto.

But the Nuer also have very interesting attitudes to sex. Before discussing Nuer marriage, Pritchard looks in detail at the concept of "incest" amongst the Nuer. Incest here is more of a cultural taboo on sexual and marital relationships between certain people.

It is more important to the Nuer because it spreads "marriages of members of any local group and [creates] innumerable links through women between persons in many different communities." Notably, incest taboos do not necessary preclude sex but are barriers to marriage.

If this challenges the notion that this might be related to any future offspring, the reader should note that to the Nuer a marriage isn't considered complete until the first child is born.

Relationships amongst the Nuer are further complicated, because when a woman marries a man, she is also considered to have married that man's brothers. Thus, "when a man dies... there is no question of the widow being remarried to one of his brothers, for the brothers already count as her husbands. The dead man's lineage have a right to inherit his wife because she is their wife, the wife of their cattle."

Readers must be careful not to interpret statements like this as meaning that the Nuer saw women as property to be exchanged who have no freedom. From a sexual point of view women in Nuer society seemed to have had a great deal of freedom. Pritchard points out that by the time a girl is 15 or 16 she has at least one lover and probably one each in the neighbouring villages. He goes on to say that "I doubt whether any girl in Nuerland goes to her husband a virgin". When it comes to marriage, proposals will be sometimes initiated by the young woman, and no reputation in Nuer society is more shameful than that of a wife beater.

And sex is not the taboo that we might think it is - "adultery in their eyes is an illegal but not an immoral act." Pritchard comments that he was struck by the frequency of adultery and the infrequency of quarrels "or even talk about it."

Women in Nuer society sometimes seem to have little choice, but the reality different:

"So long as a girl is married to a man with cattle she has fairly free choice of a mate. Much depends on whether the girl's family approve of the man's family. In theory, the parents choose their daughter's husband and only formally ask her consent, which she should give in duty to her parents, for marriage is not her business but the business of her menfolk. In fact, it is very difficult for parents to force their daughter to marry a man she dislikes, and strong-minded girls stand up against family pressure on this issue."

But Pritchard puts economics at the core of his explanation of Nuer society. This is the exchange of cattle that is central to the marriage process. This has extremely strict rules and both sets of parents will spend long periods in negotiations. "The usual payment [of cattle] is from 20 to 30... the bridewealth cannot fall to less than 16 beasts. On the other hand, it cannot rise to more than the bridegroom and his people possess or are prepared to give."

Note that this is very different from a dowry. This is wealth given to a family to compensate for the loss of a daughter. This exchange is a fundamental part of Nuer society, as Pritchard explains:

"Nuer can be very generous in this matter and if a son-in-law is respectful and industrious they will not break the union because he takes along time to pay the final cows, for marriage is not simply handing over a girl in exchange for cattle but is the creation of a series of new social relationships which, once formed, are not easily or lightly severed, especially when the union is completed by the birth of a child."

While the marriage rules and conventions seem complex, the Nuer are relatively relaxed in other aspects of family life. Pritchard explains that:

"Nuer do not attach great importance to physiological paternity. Men prefer to beget their own sons, but it is not ignominious to nurture children begotten by others. Nuer pay little regard to the manner of begetting so long as the legal fatherhood of the child is well established."

Nor do the Nuer necessarily worry too much about the sex of individuals in a marriage. Pritchard says that it is possible for a Nuer marriage to take place between two women. One of whom takes on the social position of the husband. Such marriages "are by no means uncommon... and they must be regarded as a form of simple legal marriage for the woman-husband marries her wife in exactly the same was as a man marries a woman. When the marriage rites have been completed the husband gets a male kinsman or friend or neighbour... to beget children by her wife. When the daughters of the marriage are married he will receive for each a 'cow of the begetting'."

For the Nuer there is a clear sexual division of labour. But the woman plays a key part in production. It is her work, milking the cattle and as dairymaid and cook that is crucial to the family. The man is considered "helpless" without a wife and thus marriage is the only way a man can have a home of his own. This means that Nuer women have a central and important role in the political and economic life of the community.

Labour for the Nuer is a very different thing to the work we see under capitalism. No one in a Nuer village would starve unless everyone was starving, children are nursed and looked after by the extended group, not simply their mothers and while the family produces much of what it needs, collective work is common. Activities such as hunting are communal, as are things like garden clearance. In these tasks "hospitality is provided for friends and kin, who accept the invitation to take part in the work because they are friends and kin. The owner of the homestead does not supervise the work and each does as much or as little as he chooses."

These social, cultural and economic differences point to a fundamentally different dynamic between people than the atomised, hierarchical, sexist society that characterises capitalism. Life for the Nuer was not however a Utopia. There was violence, jealously, conflict, as well as hunger and disease. However the different approach to life, arising as it does from a different mode of production, means that people solved those problems differently. Given the enormous material advances that modern capitalism has given us, we should know from studies of people like the Nuer that the barriers to us living in fundamentally different ways in the future are not down to human nature, but are social.

Related Reviews

Evans-Pritchard - The Nuer
Burke-Leacock - Myths of Male Dominance

Monday, April 15, 2013

Dava Sobel - Galileo's Daughter

Despite the title, this is very much a book about the life and times of the great Renaissance thinker
Galileo Galilei. That said, it is very much illuminated by the detail within the letters of Galileo's eldest daughter who, together with her sister, he sent to a convent at a very young age. When old enough, she took the name Suor Maria Celeste and lived her life out in the convent, a life of prayer, solitude and long hours of work. In fact the book might be seen as being two linked works. One on the life of Galileo, the other on life within an order of nuns in the 17th century.

By sending her to the convent, Galileo was in no way punishing the young girl. Born out of wedlock and before Galileo's fame had brought him limited financial security, this was one way that the young girls could have a more secure future. Though to modern eyes, their life remained one of poverty and difficulties, brought about by the convent's reliance on the generosity of others.

However the meat of the biography is Galileo himself. His trials and tribulations are illuminated by the collection of letters that were sent to him by Suor Maria Celeste. Her letters are filled with the support of a young woman for her aged father, discussing his financial (and spiritural) needs and returning mended clothes and foodstuffs that she had prepared for him. Galileo's own letters haven't survived, perhaps having been destroyed after his death by someone fearful that a keeping the letters of a victim of the inquisition might bring ill fortune upon themselves. But from Celeste's responses we can see that Galileo himself responded in kind. Sending money to alleviate temporary hardships in the convent, discussing his work and theories and ultimately the problems he faced with the church hierarchy.

Dava Sobel is excellent however and drawing out the dynamics of Galileo's arguments with senior figures in the Church. Few who select this book would not know that Galileo had faced criticism for defending the work of Copernicus, whose books, arguing that the Earth was not the centre of the universe and instead circled the Sun, had been banned by the Catholic Church. In an earlier brush with the Church's inquisition in 1616, Galileo had been instructed that he could not believe Copernicus' ideas, only hold them as a theory. At his later trial Galileo had emphasised this, saying "I do not hold this opinion of Copernicus, and I have not held it after being ordered by injunction to abandon it".

Some have argued that Galileo was an early example of someone who fought against the irrationality of Catholic Doctrine, fighting it with science and reason. The truth, as Sobel explains, is much more complex. Galileo was a convinced Christian, but he understood that the problem was with those who argued the literal interpretation of the Bible as opposed to those who thought that God's word was more complex.

Sobel points out, that Galileo had once heard the Vatican librarian Cesare Cardinal Baronio say that "the Bible was a book about how one goes to Heaven - not how Heaven goes." The problem for the Church, and indeed Galileo was that the Bible itself was mostly silent on the issues of the day. Galileo had seen the four major satellites of Jupiter with his telescope, but the Bible never mentioned them, as he wrote:

"Surely if the intention of the sacred scribes had been to teach the people astronomy, they would not have passed over the subject so completely."

Indeed, one of the problems for Galileo was that his Church, in dismissing the arguments of Copernicus and those beginning to follow him, was in danger of embarrassing itself in the face of wider revelations. As Sobel notes, Galileo sought more evidence to support Copernicus, not to damage the Church, but to correct it - "For if the Holy Fathers banned Copernicus as rumour predicted they might do at any moment, then the Church would endure ridicule when a new generation of telescopes, probably manned by infidels, eventually uncovered the conclusive evidence of the Sun-centred system."

As Galileo publishes the greatest of his books on the nature of the universe he works hard to ensure it is acceptable to the Church. It is checked by a number of senior figures and he tries hard to avoid further damage. The book is in the form of a dialogue, so Galileo avoids having himself argue the Copernican position, though he cleverly frames the debate in a way that encourages the reader to a particular conclusion. When the storm of criticism hits, Sobel makes it clear that Galileo himself was stunned by the allegations against him, and clearly thought that it was an enormous misunderstanding that would be clarified when he was able to explain himself. After all, Galileo was a new type of philosopher. His writings were based on observational evidence and experimental data. They were linked to God's reality, even if they ran counter to doctrine.

Sadly for Galileo and his daughter, despite the former close friendship of Pope Urban, the Church needed to be seen to defend doctrine firmly and Galileo was a sad victim of the reassertion of the Aristotelian view of the universe. Galileo died an old man, blinded and housebound, forbidden to discuss matters pertaining to his book (though he clearly flouted these rules and continued his scientific work). His daughter deceased him by several years, a victim of disease in a period when Medicine had barely escaped its links with mystical understandings of human health. To the end she remained a loyal daughter and despite her religious position her support for her father never wavered  Her end was eased when Galileo was finally allowed to return to his home near her, and their mutual company was clearly a great help to both of them.

Sobel's book then is more than a biography, as it demonstrates the way that as the scientific revolution was beginning, new ideas, even those dealing with outer space, challenged the political status quo. By refusing to accept Copernicus and banning Galileo's book, the Church wasn't simply dismissing theories that ran contrary to the Bible, it was also reasserting the ideology that gave it so much power and wealth. For Pope Urban, this was far more important than old ties of friendship, or experimental evidence.

Related Reviews

Johnson - The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Lisa Jardine - Ingenious Pursuits: Building the Scientific Revolution

Having really enjoyed Neal Stephenson's book Quicksilver recently, a novel set during the late 1600s which frequently focuses on some of the lives of members of the Royal Society, I decided to learn more about these early scientists - men like Robert Hooke, Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton. Lisa Jardine's book on the Scientific Revolution seemed to be a good place to start.

Jardine begins with the scientific advances being made in the early 1600s in the fields of astronomy. Much of these were triggered by new technology in the fields of optics and time keeping. People gazing at the heavens, such as the first Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed could now precisely measure the position of stars as well as observe the skies in improved detail. The work that Renaissance thinkers like Galileo had done was built on and expanded. Much of the needs of this were driven by wider interests. The measurement of the heavens was important not simply for pure science, but because it added navigation, and as the world was being opened up to Europeans by traders, explorers and the military, accurate navigation was very important.

Jardine's book is well written and readable. She deals well with the debates and disputes that took place between scientists at the time. The arguments that took place in late 1680 and 1681 for instance as leading figures like Isaac Newton and Flamsteed tried to understand the comets that had been seen in November and January are covered well. Whether they were the same comet or different had enormous ramifications for the understanding of the solar system and Jardine explains this well. She also captures the frustrations of these new experimenters well, as they competed for funds or tried to get new ideas published before the others to secure their patents and scientific notability. Though Jardine's main thesis is that these new scientific minds were less concerned with day to day politics and more with seeking scientific truth. On a number of occasions scientists continued to communicate despite their respective countries being at war. One reason why the Royal Societies secretary, Henry Oldenburg was briefly imprisoned by the King.

The book is neatly parcelled up into different sections which often centre on a particular scientific theme - astronomy, map making, anatomy and clockwork for instance. While this makes the book readable and self-contained it highlights wider problems with Jardine's work. Not the least of this is an annoying level of repetition - several of the anecdotes she tells are repeated and we are introduced to key figures on more than one occasion. Were the book longer this might be necessary, but in this case it really is not needed.

Much of the book is made up of illustrations, though many of the black and white images are replicated in colour in the centre of the book. Oddly some of these are on facing pages, which is a strange layout. Omitting the duplication would have shortened the book considerably.

However this is a minor irritation. More problematic is Jardine's approach to the period. The late 1600s were a period of immense scientific development in western Europe. Jardine seems to make no real attempt to locate these changes in the context of a enormously changing world. Following the Dutch revolt and the English Revolution, new commerical interests were opening up the world. Slavery was beginning on a mass scale and global trade was rocketing. Inside England, new industrial processes were taking root as the economic and political situation was freeing up the ability of the rich to make more money from capitalistic methods.

Throughout human history, there have been geniuses like Leonardo de Vinci, Galileo or Newton. But Jardine doesn't get to the heart of why in the period being discussed they seemed to blossom in great numbers. It wasn't simply that people were suddenly more interested in the world, it was that the world had changed and was demanding to be understood. The financial incentives to understand for commerical, or military gain were also encouraged by a new layer of the wealthy who had the time to collect, study and experiment.

Sadly this lack of clarity over wider questions is hampered by other problems. On occasion Jardine is warrant to make somewhat glib generalisations. On one she writes that "Even during the period of Newton's presidency [of the Royal Society]... the physics, astronomy and mathematics we associate with the birth of modern science today was a minor, specialist interest". Given that Jardine has spent several large sections of the book discussing the importance that various figures in the Royal Society gave to these subjects as well as pointing out their importance to navigation and the longitude problem this seems an odd claim.

An isochrone curve. Image from Wikipedia
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tautochrone_curve
In addition to these generalisations I was disappointed by a number of other observations. For instance, Jardine writes that Jacob Bernoulli was the discoverer of the "isochrone, the curve along which a body with uniform vertical velocity will fall."

Bernoulli did not "discover" the isochrone. He was the first to solve the problem using calculus. Huygens did it geometrically 40 years beforehand. In addition her description of the isochrone is inaccurate. The isochrone is actually the curve for which an object moving without friction will reach the lowest point in the same time, independent of its starting position.

Sadly Jardine's focus on the individuals rather than the wider picture, obscures the real processes taking place in science during the 17th and 18th centuries. Later, while discussing the discovery of the structure of DNA in her epilogue, she writes that:

"What must strike us... is how similar the tales are that Hooke and Watson tell: tales of casual encounters in coffee houses, overheard remarks and data encountered fortuitously... brash remarks, rash promises of success, mistakes hastily withdrawn..."

But sadly this is not the key lesson of how discoveries are made, nor is it a accurate explanation of the scientific method, which examines theories based on experimental evidence and then reworks them. This was the real legacy of the scientific revolution. Unfortunately these weaknesses mean that this book is not particularly useful in understanding either the context for the scientific revolution or some of the key discoveries of the period.

Related Reading

Johnson - The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Adrienne Mayor - The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths and Myth in Greek and Roman Times

"The giant ogre Skiron used to throw victims off a rocky cliff near Megara until the hero Theseus threw Skiron over the precipice. After a very long period of time 'his bones were tossed between sea and earth and finally hardened into rock'." - Ovid, Metamorphoses.

"It is a matter of observation that the stature of the entire human race is becoming smaller... When a mountain in Crete was cleft by an Earthquake, a skeleton 46 cubits long was found, which some people thought must be that of Orion and others of [giant] Otus... Augustus preserved the bodies of two giants (Secundilla and Pusio) over 10 feet tall at Sallust's Gardens in Rome." - Pliny the Edler, Natural History.

I have to admit that when I first received Adrienne Mayor's book I assumed it was a work of pseudo-science, exploring perhaps some invented history of Greeks and Romans living simultaneously with extinct ancient creatures. However, despite the somewhat unusual presentation (I thought the book looked like a cheap self-published work, and several of the drawings are very amateurish and add little to the text) this turns out to be an exceedingly interesting book that rapidly convinced me of the authors' central thesis.

Mayor begins with a simple argument. In many of the areas of the ancient world around the Mediterranean fossils are easily found. In the wider areas that were influenced by the Greeks and Romans or known to them through travellers and traders, even more extensive remains are common. How did the ancient people understand these?

The two quotes above demonstrate that to a certain extent, many of the ancients had a surprisingly good grasp of how such remains might be formed. Lacking an understanding of the age of the world, they could not comprehend the timescales necessary to create fossils, but they could understand them as the remains of long dead creatures or races. Frequently, the remains themselves were interpreted as human, though they were usually from mammoths or similar animals. In a lovely demonstration, Mayor rearranges the bones of a model mammoth to show how they could be altered to look like a large tall humanoid. An ogre, or an ancient hero.

In the Gobi desert remains of dinosaurs like Protoceratops are frequently found, often with eggs in their nests. Mayor shows how the shape of these dinosaurs with their curved beaks, long tales and crested skull could easily be morphed or interpreted as the classic ancient image of a griffin, with a bird like head and wings and lion's body. She then offers us evidence from ancient texts and archaeological remains to show how the ancients clearly thought that griffins did live in parts of the desert. With only a small amount of speculation Mayor adds that the legends that griffins guarded piles of gold could be understood by the flecks of the metal often found with the remains.

Some of the evidence that Mayor has produced is fairly convincing. A pottery vessel with depicting a hero fighting a monster easily resolves itself into an image of a dinosaur skull protruding from the earth. Another image of a human fighting a griffin seems unremarkable until you notice that the griffin, unlike the man, appears to be growing from the ground. A suggestion that the artist understood about bones found under the earth?

Mayor seems to know her classical sources well, and frequently lists sites were bones would have been found eroding from the ground, particularly on the Mediterranean coasts. It has to be said she builds an impressive argument.

But what did the ancients actually understand about these bones? Mayor demonstrates that many of them, including some of the most well known philosophers thought they were the remains of ancient beasts and the ogres who populated the earth before they died out at the hands of heroes like Hercules. While explaining this though, we learn that many of the ancients had a rudimentary understanding that species could evolve, change and go extinct. However while there were those in ancient times who understood these bones as remains of ancient humans or mythical creatures there were also those who saw them as being other animals. Mayor quotes a statement by Plutarch where he identifies some bones as those of a species of elephant (1,700 years before a modern scientist would make the same links). Notably though, prior to the discovery of contemporary elephants by the Greeks, these same remains were interpreted as a vanished monster known as Neades.

It is interesting to speculate whether the myths of giant humans or creatures like centaurs or griffins came first, or where they the result of people seeing fossil remains and creating myths. What it undoubtedly true though, is that in ancient times these remains were often venerated and debated as much as we would today. In fact, Mayor describes a period which is almost a "bone craze" as ancient cities and temples located remains and identified them as famous local heroes putting them on display.

What becomes clear from Mayor's fascinating book, is not simply the way that ancient people tried to understand the world around them, but also how their ideas developed and changed. Sadly we have lost much of the evidence that would enable us to understand how the bones were displayed, though tantalising comments in ancient books clearly indicate that they were gawped at by tourists much as museum visitors might today. Mayor's book seems to have spurred other writers and scientists to look at old materials and books with different eyes, for the non-expert reader however it is a stimulating and informative look, not simply at how our ancestors understood fossils but how their ideas shaped the view of their own history and myth.

Related Reviews

Ward - The Call of Distant Mammoths
Cadbury - The Dinosaur Hunters

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Rachel Hewitt - Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey

For those readers outside of the UK, the phrase "Ordnance Survey" will probably mean very little. But for millions of Britons over the years, the Survey has represented the maps and charts that we have used to find our way around the country. In particular, hikers, ramblers and climbers will know the garish pink covered maps that, in amazing detail, show the locations of windmills, ancient remains, monuments and public telephones, as well as mountains, roads and waterways.

It is easy to take this for granted, after all it is no surprise that nations have maps of themselves. From this point of view a history of the Ordnance Survey (and wider attempts to map the British Isles) might seem only of interest to a specialist readership. Yet Rachel Hewitt's book contains much of interest to those interested in the development of modern Britain, science and social history.

Hewitt begins with the failed Jacobite rebellion of the mid 1700s. The defeat of Charles Stuart at the Battle of Culloden led to "loyalist" troops hunting down the last of the rebels. They were hampered by a complete lack of maps. In fact, large areas of Scotland were not only very difficult terrain, they were also completely unknown to anyone but the locals.

For a developing nation this was an enormous problem. In addition to the military consequences the nation state also needed to know what it had in terms of resources, people and places. From these early beginnings the modern Ordnance Survey was born.

Hewitt ably traces the story of those early mapping exhibitions. The small groups of men who travelled though inhospitable terrain, measuring, drawing and noting the names of landmarks. Their equipment was rudimentary and their skills were new. Many of the earlier maps are closer to pictorial representations than the symbolic maps we know today. The accounts of the progress of the surveyors are fascinating.

A few individuals struggled to get national recognition, and eventually government realised the importance of the task. Yet it took almost a century before the first, full Ordnance Survey map of the country was finished.

Why did this take so long? It is illuminating that there was a full map of Ireland produced long before the whole of the England, Scotland and Wales. The South Coast was mapped repeatedly long before the mountains of Scotland. The reason for this disparity has everything to do with the needs of the growing British State. The South Coast was important because it was the most likely site of French invasion and understanding the location of strategic sites was crucial for the military. Ireland was Britain's first colony and the government needed to know its resources, people and places in detail. It is noteworthy that the "Great Trigonometrical Survey of India" was begun in 1817 and was well advanced by the mid-1840s, yet the final map in the first series of the British Isles (south west Northumberland) wasn't released until  1870.

One of the weaknesses of Hewitt's book is that she doesn't draw more of this out. In fact it is merely one element in an interesting story for the author, rather than a central theme of the story of British mapping. This is a shame because the story of the Ordnance Survey is one that illuminates the development of British capitalism. Capitalism brought together a particular method of organising production, one that needed incredible amounts of natural resources and people, as well as being incredibly dynamic in terms of scientific and technological development. All these elements are brought out in the story of the technological and social developments of the Ordnance Survey, yet they feel tacked on to Hewitt's history.

This is not to say that Rachel Hewitt's book is not a worthwhile read. She has collected an immense amount of forgotten history and tells a great story. It is one that interweaves William Wordsworth's poetry with the story of the determination of the distance between observatories in London and Paris. It mixes technological genius with stories of men camping for weeks on mountain tops in the hope of a clear day. Sadly this detail sometimes obscures the far greater story beneath.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Richard Fortey - The Earth: An Intimate History

Geology as a subject is one that most people know very little about. Few of us understand the processes that formed the world around us. How did the landscapes get shaped? What caused the seas and oceans and why are mountains were they are? Rich Fortey's book is a extremely readable introduction to the history of planet Earth. Rather than tell a long elongated story that starts at the beginning and proceeds ponderously towards contemporary times, Fortey describes places that he knows well. His story is actually the story of the development of geology as a science. Despite people having studied the Earth for centuries (usually in an effort to find valuable minerals) it is only very recently that the processes that have shaped the planet's surface have become accepted by the majority of scientists. The story of how "plate tectonics" came to be understood is one that involves a large array of different thinkers, each contributing small bits to the whole, and a few whose correct ideas were pretty much dismissed out of hand.

This history is fascinating but it also allows Fortey to dwell on places that demonstrate particular aspects of geological processes. While describing Newfoundland for instance, he doesn't simply explain why the east of the island is so different to the west, he takes us on an long journey through time that eventually ends up on the shore of a forgotten ocean, Iapetus. What begins as a description of the island, introduces the idea of shifting continents back through enormous lengths of time, until the reader can imagine the repetitive clashes of plates and then their fracturing as oceans close and reform over millions of years.

Fortey's writing is also wonderful. For a subject that rarely contains rapid change, he brings the subject alive, peppering his writing with literary quotes and pieces of poetry. He has the knack of making the reader understand the power of the Earth's internal forces and the majesty of their slowness. Take his description of the rock ("brownish, like spiced cake") that makes up many of the buildings, to say nothing of the surrounding landscape, of Sorrento in Italy:

"This rock is called the Campanian Ignimbrite. Its origin was a catastrophe that happened 35,000 years ago: a gigantic volcanic explosion threw out at least 100 cubic kilometres of pumice and ash... An explosion of steam and gluey lava blew out a great hole in the earth... not so much a bite out of Italy's profile as a huge punch. A vast cloud of incandesccent material buoyed up with gas flowed like a fiery tidal wave across the limestone terrain. Lumps of volcanic rock were carried along willy-nilly in the mayhem...."

Here here describes the mental work of scientists trying to understand the complicated history of particular landscapes, which have had millions of years of changes piled onto each other.


"Structural geologists love such things. They read the flexures in the rocks with the certainty of a blind man reading braille. They can easily imagine what it is for a fold system to be caught up in anther subsequent phase of contortion, fold imposed on fold. I admire this capacity to think in three dimensions - four, if you include time - more than I can say."


While Fortey's language is wonderful, at times its near poetry distracts from the subject matter. It is easy to get carried away with the flow of the narrative, and miss the detail of what the author is telling us. In particular since geology is an unknown subject for me, I found it full of strange words and concepts and had to re-read parts to understand it all. I also kept having to remind myself that some of the things being described take place over eons, millions of years. The closing of the Pacific Ocean as the tectonic plates move towards each other is taking place at the speed of the growth of human fingernails. An apt metaphor that helps us understand why it will take around 350 million years. Luckily, given the subject matter, Richard Fortey's book is full of such simple analogies and I'd recommend it to anyone trying to understand what is taking place beneath our feet.

Related Reviews

Fortey - Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Brian Clegg - Gravity: Why What Goes Up, Must Come Down

Brian Clegg is a fairly prolific writer of popular science books and he has a knack for putting across quite complex concepts in a fairly straight forward way. His decision to write a book on gravity should be welcomed because the topic is one that seems simple but in reality has some enormous complications.

Clegg begins his survey of our understanding of gravity with a examination of the way that we've understood it  historically. The common sense view of gravity is that things fall down. We know today that the rules of gravity are more complex than this - in essence the basic idea is that (following Isaac Newton) objects that have mass attract every other object with mass with a force that is inversely proportionally to the square of the distance between them, multiplied by their masses. (Things with mass attract other things, but less powerfully the further they are away).

For those of us who have had a modern science education or watched film of astronauts this may seem logical. But as Clegg points out, this understanding is very new and if we go back to the earliest ideas of gravity we have to look at some quite "alien" ideas.

The Greek thinker Aristotle had very different ideas about why things fall when you drop them. He believed that things are naturally at rest. In the Aristotilian world view, if you push something it moves until the push is removed. "The place where it stops moving depends on its elementary nature - so Earth, for example, stops moving when it as close as it can get to the centre of the universe". For the Greeks, "earthy objects had a natural heaviness (gravity) that made them want to be at the centre of the universe, while airy objects had natural lightness... that made them move away from the centre".

Such concepts seem odd because the Greeks were limited like by their different view of the universe. For them the Earth was the centre of the universe, the stars and planets fixed in place and a mere four fundamental elements. They were also limited by the stubborn refusal of people like Aristotle to find experimental verification for their theories. Their ideas seemed logical at the time, but wouldn't have often stood the most basic of tests. Famously it took the arrival of Galileo to show that objects of different weights did not accelerate at different rates, a result could have been proved with the technology available to Aristotle and his contemporaries.

The bulk of the book is devoted to more modern ideas about gravity and much of this is based on the development of the ideas of Albert Einstein. Clegg gives us a potted history of Einstein's theories. He covers the special theory of relativity in a few brief pages, concentrating on General Relativity as it is here that gravity plays its most important role. Einstein's innovation in the general theory was, in its most simplest form, to show that space and time are shaped by gravity. There are all sorts of consequences of this and Clegg does a good job of summarising many of the key points (the way that light from distant objects can be "bent" by the presence of mass for instance). He also gives a useful history of attempts to prove the theory, such as expeditions to see the way that the position of stars was distorted by the presence of our sun, something only viewable during solar eclipses.

After looking at General Relativity, Clegg moves further into the exotic. Firstly he discusses attempts to link general relativity together with the science of Quantum Mechanics - the ideas that govern what takes place on very very small scales. Famously this has yet to be achieved, but Clegg gives us some tantalising glimpses of the possibilities. Most intriguingly, Clegg discusses the  work of a Czech physicist, Peter Horava, who has managed to mathematically link general relativity with quantum theory, but only in the special case of the mathematics that might have taken place in the very early stages of the universe.

Finally, after briefly being diverted by discussions on time-travel, Clegg examines the way that gravity works. We are used to thinking of the influence being instantaneous. But gravity only works at the speed of light. Exactly HOW this happens is a matter for enormous debate. Again here mathematics is king. Some of the enormously complex equations suggest that gravity might be like other forces such as electromagnetism, whose influence is governed by the movement of packets of energy called photons. Experimental attempts to spot these packets of gravity (gravitons) have so far been unsuccessful, in part because of the great difficulties in spotting them amongst all the noise caused by masses around us.

Much of this discussion is fascinating, and Clegg's skill as a writer is to get across such ideas. I suspect that most readers will understand 90% of the book and will take the rest on trust. Some of the concepts - such as gravity itself causing further gravity - are hard to get ones head around, but often Clegg does them justice.

However there are some problems with the book. The first of these is editing. In a couple of places the sentences read very badly, and there is at least one nonsensical line ("One pound weight of coffee on the Moon would be 6 times as much coffee 1 pound weight of coffee on the Earth"). At least one of the URLs in the references, supposedly linking to a video demonstrating the properties of gyroscopes doesn't work (chapter 11, reference 3 if the publishers are reading). These are annoying problems that should have been picked up before the book was published.

More problematic is Clegg's way of drowning the reader in ideas and concepts. He mentions the idea of quantum tunnelling on page four for starters - throwing the reader in at the deep end. In the space of a few pages (84-85) Clegg discusses, tidal forces in planets and moons, red giants, extraterrestrial life, followed a few pages on by the life and death of stars. All these things are linked, but it felt like a roller coaster of a read.

These criticisms aside it is a useful book. In the final chapter Clegg quotes the American physicist Richard Feynman saying "the most impressive fact is that gravity is simple". In a way that is true but I fear that Clegg makes too much of this. Gravity might be simple, but understanding it is an incredibly difficult task. This is why many of the scientists discussed in the book devoted their entire lives to trying to solve aspects of the science. Cleggs book is a good attempt at making some difficult science easier.

Related Reviews

Clegg - Infinity: The Quest to think the Unthinkable
Johnson - The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments
Cathcart - The Fly in the Cathedral

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Rachel Carson - Silent Spring

The fiftieth anniversary of the first publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson has been covered widely in the media (see this rolling coverage by The Guardian for instance). It seemed a good opportunity to read this famous book, often credited as being the trigger for the modern environmental movement and certainly one that continues to provoke wide debate today. Carson's book is a beautiful read, it is eloquent, learned and funny. To take one example; when describing attempts to eradicate the Japanese beetle from croplands, she describes Sheldon in Illinois. Of which she says, that "perhaps no community has suffered more for the sake of a beetleless world." Carson puts across complex ideas well for the layman readership and it is no surprise that it sold hundreds of thousands of copies in the first few months of publication.

The book concentrates on one key environmental issue - the use of chemical pesticides to destroy insects and weeds, particularly for agriculture. Carson rages against the over-use of the chemicals, she describes how the over use of chemicals like DDT to destroy pests (over 200 new pesticides were created between the 1940s and publication) has led even to a "fad of gardening by poisons" in the United States.

The book is most well known for its expose of the use of DDT. Carson is meticulous in her detailing of the problem. She shows how DDT and other pesticides are concentrated as they move up the food chain, meaning that even when the correct amount of poison is used, animals and humans can suffer overdoses because of the food they are eating. There is a powerful section of the book where she explains how earthworms are the "concentrators" of DDT that is used to control Dutch Elm Disease. This then destroys the robins who eat enormous quantities of worms, leading to the loss of birdsong - the silent spring of the title.

She shows how rivers and streams are destroyed by the chemicals, and describes the impact on the wider ecology. Carson even describes the "spontaneous" formation of other weedkillers, when certain chemical compounds combine in the soil and water.

However there is much more to this book than Carson's dramatic denunciation of this culture of poison. The is an intensely ecological book. By that I mean that Carson's analysis is rooted in an understanding of the webs and chains that form nature. In particular she hates the notion that humans are somehow external to the natural world. She writes eloquently;

"As man proceeds towards his announced goal of the conquest of nature, he has written a depressing record of destruction, directed not only against the earth he inhabits but against the life that shares it with him."

But for Carson this "announced goal" is nonsense. Humans aren't separate from nature, they are part of it, and our actions impact upon the natural world and back upon ourselves. This is why she has to spend so much time discussing the illnesses, diseases and cancers that result from the use of chemical pesticides.

But Carson's analysis isn't simply ecological in the sense that she understands the natural world, she also understands the historic and economic reason that pesticides are used in the modern world. She describes the "treadmill" of pesticides, which we might interpret as the logic of the market - that once you begin using vast quantities of chemicals, it is logically to use more and more of them, due to their decreasing impact, rather than switching to more rational alternatives. Carson locates the pesticides use and promotion within an "era dominated by industry... in which the right to make a dollar at whatever cost is seldom challenged". The pesticides that the US used in the 1950s had their roots in the nerve gases and poisons manufactured for military purposes in the First and Second World Wars. The use of Agent Orange as a weapon against the ecology of Vietnam and its people is the logical extension of this.

Carson also appears to see the problem located much more in the structures of modern society. The insect problem she describes, that requires such enormous quantities of pesticides, arose with the intensification of agriculture, in particular the practise of mono-cropping, which she describes as "agriculture as an engineer might conceive it to be".

Carson's environmental critique then, leads directly to a critique of an economic and political system that has profit as its sole goal. Its noteworthy that Carson isn't anti-science or anti-technology. She is not the environmentalist that argues for a return to a more primitive existence. Indeed her well-argued alternatives are often very technological (involving for instance the laboratory sterilisation of insects to undermine populations in the wild). It is dangerous to draw from this that Carson was some sort of Revolutionary Socialist, though her enemies often described her as a Communist. Other writers like John Bellamy Foster have shown the extent to which Carson's world view was influenced by left wing ideas - see this article for instance.

Carson was working and writing in the 1950s and 1960s so it was inevitable that a critique of the priorities of a section of American industry would be highly controversial. Indeed it is noticeable that in many places she draws parallels in her criticism of pesticides with radiation poisoning. At the time the American public was only just coming to terms with the impact of fallout and its links to cancer. So Silent Spring is also a detailed explanation of cancer and how it can result from external environmental influences. Carson clearly believed that an informed public was one that was more prepared to ask questions and protest at what was happening to them.

Carson's work may have helped kick-start the modern environmental movement, but its impact otherwise was limited. DDT and a few other very dangerous chemicals were banned. But pesticides are still used in vast quantities and still suffer from the problems and limitations outlined in Silent Spring. As the world faces even greater environmental problems in the 21st century, Carson's book is important for many reasons, but not least its attempt to locate ecological crises within the framework of a whole system. For that reason alone it deserves a read during the 50th anniversary year.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

J.S. Weiner - The Piltdown Forgery

In December 1912, Charles Dawson and Arthur Woodward announced an enormous scientific discovery to a packed lecture room. Hundreds of scientists were fascinated because the find could offer proof of Darwin's evolutionary theory and because in those days of scientific racism, some were hoping that a European proto-human might be found to counter the ancient remains that had hither-to only been found in Asia.

Piltdown Man has become synonymous with archaeological and anthropological forgery, yet the story of how the hoax was uncovered is a fascinating tale of scientific investigation. This contrasts with the way that some sections of the scientific community hailed the revelations at the time despite some serious doubts about the finds and the discoverer.

Almost as soon as the discovery was announced, it courted controversy. Some argued that the two pieces were not from the same skeleton, others muttered darker allegations. David Waterson, Professor of Anatomy for instance, "found it hard to conceive of a functional association between a jaw [bone] so similar to that of a chimpanzee and a cranium in all essentials human."

The problem was several-fold. Firstly at the beginnings of the twentieth century there were very few ways of determining an item's age. For particularly ancient finds, the best way of doing so was to date it from surrounding geography and geology, as well as other contemporary items that could be dated by other means. Today, a few hours of carbon dating would have exposed the Piltdown hoax very quickly. In 1912 things were much more complicated. Secondly since the scientists did not really know what an early human might look like the differences in the structure of the jaw-bone to that of a modern human were merely assumed to be because the bone came from an early evolutionary stage. Finally the hoaxer and gone to extreme lengths to make the find look genuine. The bones were stained in ways that were difficult to detect with contemporary instruments. The pieces were scattered and other, more unusual finds were associated with them. Finally, the principle discoverer, Charles Dawson was notoriously bad at recording his finds and keeping records.

J.S. Weiner was one of the scientists who gathered together all of the scientific proof that the Piltdown remains were a forgery and this is the classic history of the expose. Despite effectively being a documentation of a scientific investigation that is wholly negative, it contains a wealth of detail for the reader, and dare I say it, lessons for scientists from multiple disciplines today.

Most of the first half of the book is an account of the discovery and unveiling of the various finds associated with Piltdown, followed by a detailed marshaling of the evidence against an ancient age for the bones. Firstly Weiner argues that the gravels were the remains were "found" were completely "unfossiliferous" (a rather wonderful word there). Secondly he describes an ingenious dating method used before carbon-dating which dates a bone by the amount of fluorine it has absorbed since internment. This is one of the gems of science in this book and was a bit of a revelation to me. Weiner documents the expose of the various types of staining of the bones and other remains that was designed to make them appear old and finally he argues that "our scrutiny of the accounts of the digging up of the various fragment has given us no confidence that anything did come from undisturbed soil, despite Dawson's assertions."

The order of this is important. Weiner goes to great lengths to make the reader feel that he has proved the forgery scientifically. Once that has been accomplished, Weiner, in the second half of the book, sets out an argument that demolishes Charles Dawson's claims to a scientific authority.

When this book was first published in 1955 most of the principle people who had been involved had died. Nonetheless, Weiner remains careful not to point the finger to much. In fact, by starting with the science he avoids the book becoming simply a collection of allegations and gossip aimed at some of those involved. Having said that, Weiner does demonstrate that Charles Dawson in particular had a very bad reputation amongst his colleagues (amateur and professional) and a series of dubious discoveries to his name. These discoveries seem laughable today, and I cannot document them here. I would direct the interested reader to this short piece or Weiner's book.

It appears that several of Dawson's contemporaries (again, amateur and professional) never believed that the Piltdown was real. In fact one, Harry Morris, claimed to have overheard a conversation by Dawson that a fossil tooth, that was important to the identification of the bones as ancient, was "imported from France". Dawson was accused of "salting the mine", a damning allegation that matched other, contemporary criticisms of him for "plagiarism" and lack of scientific rigour.

Since Weiner and his colleagues proved the Piltdown hoax there has been much speculation about who was the perpetrator of the crime. Circumstantial evidence as well as some witness statements make it almost certain that Charles Dawson was the guilty party. Weiner points out that there may have been others involved, or a single other person who led a willing Dawson along. However Weiner also shows convincingly that this unknown other party must have been extremely knowledgeable in a variety of scientific disciplines as well as knowing Dawson's movements very well.

While there will always be a lingering doubt over Dawson's role, he died long before the truth came out. A more interesting question is why the doubts that did exist were never allowed to be part of the scientific discourse around the discovery. In some cases personal conflict was an important part. Harry Morris for instance seems to have had an ongoing feud with Dawson and while his own notes show clear belief in forgery from day one, he didn't declaim this publicly. Part of the problem was that the Piltdown theory backed up Morris' own wider theories of human history in southern England.

Weiner's book then shouldn't simply be seen as an attempt to expose a criminal, though it reads like an archaeological detective novel. Instead it is a wonderful explanation of the importance of the scientific method. The mistakes that were made by scientists in the early 1900s may have had their roots in racial beliefs, mistaken scientific knowledge, or simply a desire to be associated with a breakthrough discovery. Dawson himself exhibited what Weiner calls an "anxiety for recognition" - never a good thing for a scientist.

More importantly the final expose of the Piltdown forgery demonstrates how important it is for scientists to have a well rounded knowledge, rather than specialising too much. Bringing together archaeology, anthropology, chemistry, physics and history as well as being prepared to search through old cupboards and bookshelves, Weiner's and his colleagues exposed a sad episode in the history of science. But they may have made us all clearer on our own history in the process.

This review is of the 1955 edition of The Piltdown Forgery. The re-publication in 2003 had a new introduction and afterword by Chris Stringer which no-doubt puts the debates into a modern context. I would suggest that readers interested in reading Weiner's book try and find the edition with the Stringer pieces. This can be ordered as print-on-demand from the publisher here.

Related Reviews

Stringer - The Origin of Our Species