Welcome to the Firstest, Biggestest, Inaugural Edition of The Giant’s Shoulders, the carnival of History Of Science! The carnival grew out of the Classic Papers Challenge by gg of Skulls in the Stars. That was so much fun, several of us thought this is something that should be done regularly, perhaps every month. So, gg and I got together and got this thing started.
I know some of the future hosts will do this very creatively (and yes, you can volunteer to host, though you will have to wait six months for your turn!), and I envisioned doing this in a form of, perhaps, a vigorous debate at the meeting of Royal Society or something like that. But then I got so many entries and the carnival got so big, I decided I had to go with a simpler scheme – the link and brief quote from each post.
As I was reading all the entries, I realized how much I tend to read only within my own area of interest and rarely find time and energy to read science bloggers when they dig into the depths of their own fields which I do not understand well. And I realized how much fun it is to read about things one knows very little about. So, I wanted to organize the carnival in a way that will make you more likely to check “the other guys” instead of just checking out your best buddies. So, instead of grouping the entries by discipline, I laid them out in chronological order, from the oldest to the newest. I hope you read them in order. This way, you can get a feel for what was known at what time, what was in the news at each era, what was the Zeitgeist, and how the practice of science (and science-writing) gradually changed.
Without further ado, here are the exciting carnival entries for July 2008:
1543 – Vesalius. It’s hard to go any earlier than this in the history of modern science, so we have to start with catatau at catatau blog, with a brief post Humanis Corporis Fabrica de Vesalius with the famous illustrations:
Em 1543 Andreas de Vesalius publicou uma lição de anatomia intitulada De Humanis Corporis Fabrica. Como Copérnico, Vesalius foi considerado por muitos um “precursor” de formas científicas modernas.
In the old days, when people communed with nature more closely, the fact that plants and animals did different things at different times of day or year did not raise any eyebrows. That’s just how the world works – you sleep at night and work during the day, and so do (or in reverse) many other organisms. Nothing exciting there, is it? Nobody that we know of ever wondered how and why this happens – it just does.
1750 – La Mettrie. This post by catatau at catatau is in Portugese, so I do not understand it, but those of you who can (and you can give us a summary in English) will enjoy La Mettrie: O Homem-Máquina e A Arte do Gozo
Existe uma corrente atual (na verdade, ela é bem mais antiga do que admitiriam seus mais fiéis defensores) de pensamento que busca subsumir os dados históricos às “descobertas”, “avancos” e “temas” contemporaneos. Assim, um livro esquecido hoje teria sua justificativa de ser “esquecido” precisamente por nao ter relevancia alguma para historiadores ou cientistas: e algo como irrelevante, ultrapassado, demode.
In 1751 John Hill, upset the Royal Society of London rejected his application for membership, published a scathing critique of credulous papers printed by that body. One such review focused on a paper printed about an old, but common, legend that the Brent-Goose (probably Branta bernicla) was born not of eggs but of seashells dropped like fruit from a particular type of tree. Hill could not stand to see such nonsense peddled to the people, and the fact that it was being promulgated by the Society that rejected him gave him an opportunity for some revenge.
1751 – Linneaus. Here is another one of mine, in the same vein as my previous one: Carolus Linnaeus’ Floral Clocks
Linnaeus observed over a number of years that certain plants constantly opened and closed their flowers at particular times of the day, these times varying from species to species. Hence one could deduce the approximate time of day according to which species had opened or closed their flowers.
The bottom line is that we are just beginning to understand the outer solar system and to come up with plausible scenarios for the evolution of the solar system that account for all of its parts. If Lykawka’s theory proves correct and someone finds Planet X, the really important question will be what do we call it. George is still up for grabs.
To Buffon the Americas contained a degenerate fauna, everything about them (including Native Americans) being inferior to Old World creatures. Although Jefferson admired Buffon’s general appreciation for natural history he would not sit idly by and let Buffon call the New World and his country (still experiencing labor pains as he wrote his Notes) degenerate. The discovery of the American incognitum earlier in the century and it’s identification as some variety of elephant (albeit a carnivorous one) by the 1760’s provided Jefferson with a perfect “American Monster” to counter Buffon.
From a historical point of view, Arago’s experiment* is absolutely fascinating: as we will see, it was a failed experiment, based on incorrect theories of light propagation, which was interpreted incorrectly by Fresnel, but this incorrect interpretation helped lead to the (correct) view that light has wavelike properties! The incorrect interpretation, however, also led physics into a hundred-year ‘red herring’ search that only ended with the advent of Einstein’s relativity. These are a lot of twists and turns to untangle, so let’s take them one step at a time.
When I ask people if they know who Phineas Gage is, most people stop and say “who?” Then you say five words “railroad spike through the head”, and everyone says “OH! YES!” The case of Phineas Gage is one of the best-known case reports in medicine, and since then, Phineas Gage and his tamping iron have been the source of numerous books, TV specials, retroactive research, review articles, and neurology lectures. This is pretty good fame for a railroad foreman whose only claim to fame was a freak accident.
Today, the idea that sauropods (and non-avian theropods) were pneumatic animals is well established and universally accepted (a minority view – promoted by those who insist that birds cannot be dinosaurs – maintains that non-avian dinosaurs were not pneumatic, but I see no indication that the workers concerned know what they’re talking about). Indeed, sauropod pneumaticity has been discussed a lot here at SV-POW! But have people always regarded sauropods as pneumatic? As someone particularly interested both in pneumaticity and in the dinosaurs of the Lower Cretaceous Wealden Supergroup of southern England, the whole ‘Pneumaticity: the Early Years’ story is of special interest to me. I hope you get something out of it too…
It has been fashionable to underscore the differences between them (and that is quite interesting) but if each of these writings were proffered as answers to an AP biology exam question asking “What is Natural Selection … how does it work and what is the evidence for it?” the two essays would score about the same grade. I wonder what the grade would be?
1880 – Dutton. This one by Tuff Cookie at Magma Cum Laude is about an entire book – A Report on the Geology of the High Plateaus of Utah:
Reading any of Dutton’s works is a pleasure – not only because they are accounts of the first explorations of the geology of the western US, but because of the writing style of Dutton’s time. It reads a little like a travelogue, a little like an adventure story, and is elegant, succinct and thoroughly insightful.
The fact that dinosaurs were envisioned by some as being giant, swamp-bound monsters during this time gave Reid a way out. The Genesis narrative was clear that birds were created on the 5th day, the same day as the great whales and other “moving creatures of the water” (within which Reid lumped non-avian dinosaurs). If mammals (including humans) appeared on the next day, representing the “Age of Mammals,” then the 5th must have been the “Age of Reptiles”.
Most people know Sigmund Freud as the founder of psychoanalysis, as well as originating the idea of the role of the unconscious in conscious thought, and of course for “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” But were you also aware that Freud was one of the pioneers of research into the properties of cocaine?
What’s notable about Ebbinghaus’s study isn’t so much the conclusions he draws from it, but the fact that he’s the first person to attempt a systematic, experimental study of memory. He actually devised his own system of accounting for error (anticipating standard deviation).
This was kind of a pain to work with, so some clever guy named Julius came up with a modification of this method in 1887, using pairs of shallow dishes, one slightly larger than the other so that it could be turned upside down to use as a lid. Then, you don’t necessarily need the bell jar, and you don’t need to stack them so they’re easier to pour. Julius Robert Petri’s idea was so useful that we still use it today. Oh, yeah, and they named the dish-and-lid combination after him.
The experiment that Wiener performed, as we will see, is conceptually simple and elegant. I foolishly thought that this would “translate” into a short, easy to cope with paper. As one can see from the citation above, no such luck: the paper is 40 pages of somewhat antiquated German! I accepted my fate, though, and soldiered on.
In 1890, her niece Ruth was born, and Shinn spent hours carefully observing the child’s every behavior. This “large mass of data” became the basis for a book that was welcomed by the scholars of the day, The Biography of a Baby, which, while not the first of its kind, certainly was one of the most thorough scientific accounts of a baby’s cognitive and physical development in its time.
There are actually few geologists I know who have and regularly use horsemanship skills in the course of their field work (I’ve only known a few who needed pack animals and a muleskinner usually came with the mules/ponies/horses/burros – my grandfather needed dog-sledding, fishing, and hunting skills for his gold-mining in Alaska). Besides that and a little gender-bias, his words remain fairly true. At least a couple of profs I’ve known over the years have wanted to instill this understanding in their field-oriented students.
1917 – Graham. SciCurious at Neurotic Physiology shows once again how an accident can teach us something very basic about the way the human body works – Diabetes Insipidus as a Sequel to a Gunshot Wound of the Head
But on the fourth day, he began to PEE. And pee. And pee. It was so bad that they couldn’t even collect it all, he would urinate in the bed before they could even get him to a toilet. He was voiding 4.5-5.5 liters per day, and drinking copiously to retain any fluid at all. It never seemed to stop, even after he was discharged (to a mental hospital, unfortunately he remained severely unstable for the rest of his life).
Before I get into the ideas of the paper, the first thing to note is the style of writing. Simply look at the page range in the citation above … these old-school scientists were verbose! If you’re looking for concise statements and something you can digest quickly, this is not the place to go. But, if you’re in the mood to read some great scientific prose and dive deep into an idea, these old papers can be a delight.
As Kulik was boarding his train to the Far East one of his colleagues handed him a page torn from an old calendar that had a news article about a meteor fall in Siberia in 1908. Almost every detail of the article was wrong. It described a red glowing stone landing near the railroad and curious passengers standing around to watch it cool. However, from the date and location in the story, Kulik was able to figure out what had happened. He prepared a questionnaire about the event that he gave to people across Siberia. Comparing witness accounts he was able to calculate approximately where the streak in the sky should have touched down. Kulik had no doubt that the 1908 explosion was a meteorite.
1931 – Loomis, Brown and Brouwer. Tom of Swans on Tea covers something dear to my own heart (yes, there is even influence of the Moon!), from a physical perspective – two papers about time, in a three-part post: ‘Classic’ Timekeeping, Part I, ‘Classic’ Timekeeping, Part II and ‘Classic’ Timekeeping, Part III:
These are from 1931, fulfilling the pre-WWII criterion, when you still had individuals engaging in research that were self-financed or supported by a patron and much of the equipment was self-manufactured. The science in this case was largely self-funded, and as for the “basement,” well, it’s a pretty fancy basement as you’ll see, as one might suspect of someone who can fund his own science. But classic nonetheless.
Although mice and rats are far more commonly used animal models in biomedical research, we still refer to human test populations and volunteers for experiments as “guinea pigs”. Between 1915 and 1925, the Bureau of Animal Industry at the USDA maintained a number of guinea pig strains for genetics research, and this 1933 paper* by Sewall Wright describes the appearance of, and inheritance patterns associated with, “otocephalic monsters” in one inbred strain (“family 13″) of these rodents.
If you take a microbiology lab, this is the endospore staining technique (or “technic” as they used to spell it) that you’ll practice.
Compared to Windle and Austin, I had a lot of sophisticated equipment and labeling techniques at my disposal; in the end, however, my results were almost identical to theirs, with respect to the timing of arrival of the earliest central axons, and I had a nice historical confirmation for a section of the Neuron paper my mentor and I published.
1936 – Diserens and Wood. Podblack of the eponymous PodBlack Blog is skeptical – Belief in Fortune Telling Amongst College Students:
How does research on belief of college students in fortune-telling from 1936, compare to research today? Are the students that much different or does research now recognise a wider spectrum of influences that could have been included in the initial study? What were some of the socio-cultural influences that could have made a group of 101 students from the University of Cincinnati respond the way they did – and could a paper of that time recognised those elements?
For this weird science Friday, I want to take you back. Back to a time before estrogen and testosterone. Back to a time when people were still trying to figure out was these “hormones” were. Back to when the grass was green, men had male hormone, women had female hormone, and roosters were castrated in the service of science.
About 15 years before Watson and Crick proposed a model for DNA and back when scientists were in disagreement about how genetic information was actually stored, there was the Beadle and Tatum experiment.
1942 – Coons, Creech, Jones, and Berliner. Mary from The OpenHelix Blog did some serious detective sleuthing to figure out who was the first to use labeling of a tissue sample with a fluorescent antibody and her digging uncovered some cool work in the basement and other nifty history – The Beginnings of Immunofluorescence:
Ok, so fluorescent antibodies didn’t just come out of the freezer (ice-box). They came from a process. And they came from a time when lots of things actually could have gone wrong. Coons might have not come back from the war. Not everyone made it through.
I would like to say that the Avery paper did not, at that time, definitively establish DNA as genetic material. Rather, it only showed that DNA was the transforming principle, and there were competing ideas about the mechanism of transformation. However, many scientists did interpret transformation as a genetic phenomenon, so the genetic implications of the paper were immediately recognized. That said, the paper did not find immediate acceptance.
Archaeologists are notorious moochers. Or maybe I should be nice and just say we’re ‘highly adaptive’. Either way, we constantly pick up new techniques from other disciplines, such as using G.I.S. and performing DNA analysis on ancient skeletons. Even our trowels were designed for masonry work.
1952 – Lederberg and Lederberg. Mike of the Ramblings of a Mad Scientist blog, in On the shoulders of giants describes an important experiment that used a technique that is still the standard one in use in everyday microbiology to select for bacteria which are sensitive to an antibiotic, or a virus, or require a certain compound for growth:
So, thank you, Drs. Lederberg. this paper of yours not only established the importance of mutation prior to exposure to an environmental challenge, but also outlined a handy lab technique I’ve made repeated and systematic use of in my own experiments.
In 1951, Salpeter spent a summer at Caltech, working with Willy Fowler, the amiable head of the Kellogg Radiation Laboratory. Fowler handed off some unprocessed 1949 nuclear physics experimental data to Salpeter to see if he could solve a tough problem: Physicists couldn’t figure out how stars make carbon.
Gestalt theory hit the psychology world by storm in the 1920s, and the Gestalt school’s unquestioned leader (though probably not the originator of the concept) was Max Wertheimer. While many people have an intuitive understanding of the concept of “gestalt” as the essence or overall meaning of something, they may not be as aware of the Gestalt school’s principles, which were laid down by Wertheimer and others in very specific and concrete ways.
1957 – Eshelby. Guru of Entertaining Research covers a pair of extremely influential and highly cited physics papers – Elastic stresses due to inclusions and inhomogeneities
However, as Eshelby himself seems to have noted, the most important reason why these two papers are classics are not for their results, but for the methodology that was developed in them, which continue to be of use fifty years after he published these papers.
1960 – Pittendrigh. Another one of mine, on the most famous (and probably most cited) paper in my field: Forty-Five Years of Pittendrigh’s Empirical Generalizations:
It appears that every scientific discipline has its own defining moment, an event that is touted later as the moment of “birth” of the field. This can be a publication of a paper (think of Watson and Crick) or a book (“Origin of Species” anyone?). In the case of Chronobiology, it was the 1960 meeting at Cold Spring Harbor. The book of Proceedings from the Meeting (Symposia on Quantitative Biology, Vol.XXV) is a founding document of the field: I have two copies, my advisor has three (all heavily used and annotated).
One of the things that makes this such a seminal paper is that Binford not only establishes his assertions and what he believes the future of archaeology should become, but he details why. More than this, he provides a working example of his proposed methods at work by using the Old Copper Complex of the Western Great Lakes as an example.
“…I’m going to talk about Resolution of Singularities. This is a very classical topic, and research continues in it to this day.”
1966 – Bauer, Kirby, Sherris and Turck. Here is another one by Epicanis at The Big Room
Antibiotic Susceptibility Testing by a Standardized Single-Disk Method
The authors here didn’t invent this trick. Not all antibiotic-susceptibility tests are “Kirby-Bauer” tests (the blurry picture there is of an experiment I did involving the beer ingredient hops, and is not a Kirby-Bauer test. Click the picture to go to my “Beer Cures Anthrax” post from long ago…). What this paper describes is a method that finally standardized this test.
The design of the experiment is simple and brilliant; yet it was not easy to execute at the time. Today researchers studying vision almost always use computers to display stimuli. In 1970, when the experiment was designed, psychologists didn’t have easy access to computers capable of displaying Shepard and Metzler’s complex, three-dimensional images.
“….his simple question was: “If sanity and insanity exist, how shall we know them?” . In order to investigate, he planted a number of perfectly sane patients in mental hospitals to see if staff would notice. The shocking results of his experiment sparked a fierce debate that continues to this day.”
The paper was a model of simplicity and clarity. It posed a central question: why aren’t more animal ﬁghts fatal? This was a question of some concern, because animals have large repertoires of nasty weapons with which to pursue violent conﬂicts, but as Maynard Smith and Price pointed out, animals rarely ﬁght to the death.
1977 – Fox, Magrum, Balch, Wolfe and Woese. Microbiologist XX, whose blog is called, you guessed it, Microbiologist XX describes how our view of Life completely change with the publication of a single paper – Carl Woese Changed the Tree of Life:
Prior to 1977 the tree of life was composed of two branches, prokaryotes and eukaryotes. However, that changed when the Carl Woese lab published the classic paper Classification of Methanogeic bacteria by 16S ribosomal RNA Characterization. This paper introduced a new domain of life, archae (referred to at the time of publication as archaebacteria), and simultaneously created a new paradigm for understanding the origins of life on earth. Furthermore, this paper underscored the importance and power of classifying organisms using genetic relationships instead of morphological similarities.
Much of my current work as a research assistant deals with the theories of Csikszentmihalyi, and so I first came across research on games in relation to how Flow theory is used to explain the popularity of massive multi-player online role-playing games (MMORPG). Having seen the development and maintenance of peer cultures within forum boards develop, including negative aspects like cliques and bullying, which extended into the ‘real-world’, I wondered about the early research on games and whether it was just indeed just a bad experience of a few turned into unwanted hysteria. Certainly not all forum boards can be judged on less than a handful – so was it the same in this case, warranting such a study?
1992 – Kresge, Leonowicz, Roth, Vartuli and Beck. We will finish with a post on a chemistry paper that is not too ‘new’ (but still within our carnival criterion – older than 10 years), but since it has been cited over 6 thousand times it’s ‘classic’ enough, methinks. From Katy of Endless Possibilities – Classic Chemistry: MCM 41:
As with many things, empty space matters as much in chemistry as the atoms or molecules that surrounds it. Some of the most intriguing and beautiful structures are found in the realms of porous (holey) materials.
And with this, we enter the most recent era, not really history yet. So, this is the end of the carnival and start of your own inspired writing for the next edition, which will be hosted by Martin on The Lay Scientist, exactly one month from today.