A Scientist Adventurer

07 11 kenelm digbyToday is the birthday of Sir Kenelm Digby, who was born in 1603 at Gayhurst in Buckinghamshire. Digby was from a wealthy family, but he had a poor start in life. His father was one of the men executed for the Gunpowder Plot. I’ve not mentioned him before, but I’ve come across Digby often in my research. He turns up in all sorts of odd places, I’ve found him fighting duels, practising sympathetic magic, being a founder member of the Royal Society, authoring a cookery book and tragically mourning the death of his wife in quite weird way. So I thought we could have a proper look at him today.

In his early teens, Digby was tutored by a preacher called Robert Napier, who taught him about medicine, astronomy and alchemy. Robert had been a student of Simon Forman, who I mentioned back in December. He later studied at Oxford under the tutelage of a mathematician and astrologer called Thomas Allen.

Kenelm Digby was also in love, with a woman called Venetia Stanley, but his mother didn’t want them to marry. In fact, she sent him to Europe in 1620 so they couldn’t see each other. He spent some time in France, at the court of the mother of the King Louis XIII, Marie de Medici. According to his own account, she was deeply attracted to him, but he had to turn her down because of his love for Venetia. But she was so insistent that he could only get away from her by pretending that he had been killed. After that, he went to Florence where he wrote to Venetia to tell her he was well. But his mother intercepted his letter and it never reached her. Meanwhile, Venetia had heard and believed the rumours of his death and almost married someone else.

Digby also visited Madrid in 1623 at a time when the Prince of Wales, the future Charles I, was visiting the city in secret. Whilst there, Digby became involved in a huge street fight. It all started with a woman singing on a balcony. One of his friends was in love with the woman and stopped to listen. But he had a rival for her affections who had set a trap for him. They were suddenly attacked by a group of strangers. Again, we only have Digby’s, probably inflated, account to go on. But they were set upon by about fifteen men, it was dark, the men were wearing lanterns on their heads, which stopped him from being able to see them well. Everyone’s swords broke but Kenelm’s. They ran away and left him to fight. But he got away and killed two of them.

Digby returned to England later that year, and married Venetia in 1625. In 1627, he became a privateer, which means he had permission from the king to sail around the Mediterranean capturing Spanish and French vessels. So he was basically a legal pirate. Quite early on, his crew fell sick and he had to find a port. He chose Algiers, which was rather a daring choice. Most English captains tried to avoid Algiers, because it was full of pirates. He had a great time there. He made friends with the Algerian pirates and feasted with them. He bought Arabic manuscripts, he visited the steam baths. He met and talked with Muslim women, which was highly unusual, if not unique, for the time. He also managed to persuade the governors of the city to release fifty English slaves. After that he went on to defeat a very large fleet of Venetian ships and then went to Greece and plundered quite a lot of classical statues, which he thought would make impressive gifts when he returned home.

photo credit: stephencdickson licensed under creative commons

Sadly, Venetia died in her sleep in 1633. Digby was distraught. He took plaster casts of her hands, feet and face. He asked his friend, Anthony van Dyke, to paint a picture of her on her deathbed. He commissioned poets to compose verses in her praise. He summoned the poet Ben Johnson to come and look at her body, so that he might be inspired by the sight. He insisted on attending the dissection of her body, which was carried out to try to find the cause of her death. The only conclusion was that she “had very little brain”. He built a huge black mausoleum for her body with a gold bust of her on the top. He never married again.

He became less of a gregarious adventurer and more of a solitary scientist. I first came across him in connection with the ‘weapon salve‘, an ointment which could cure a wound by applying it, not to the body, but to the weapon that caused it. Digby claimed to have the secret of the ‘powder of sympathy’ which he used to cure the wound of a friend named James Howell. His hand had been cut when he tried to intervene in a duel and was in danger of developing gangrene. Digby asked for something with his blood on it and was given a garter. Then, he took a bowl of water, put a handful of powder in it and dipped the garter in the bowl. Howell, though he was unaware of what was happening, immediately felt relief. When later, Digby put the garter to dry before a fire, Howell sent word that his wound was burning worse than ever. When Digby put it back in the water, his wound was cooled again.

Kenelm Digby left England during the Commonwealth period and returned at the same time as Charles II. He was one of the founding members of the Royal Society. In fact, one of his papers, ‘Discourse Concerning the Vegetation of Plants’ was the first to be published by the society. In it, he claimed that it was possible to burn the bodies of crayfish and resurrect them from their ashes, which, in 2016, seems a bit of a wild claim. But his paper was the first to suggest that plants might draw some of their sustenance from the air.

But Digby had another surprise. After his death, his lab assistant published a book of his recipes. Kenelm Digby was a cook. During his travels, he had collected all sorts of recipes. He has an oriental recipe for ‘tea with eggs’, which is the first Chinese recipe ever published in English. Some of his recipes are European, but many of them are English. It’s a great source of information for what people were eating in the seventeenth century. Admittedly, some of them don’t sound that great. ‘Hart’s horn jelly’ and ‘barley pap’ both sound pretty awful, but his book also contains his recipe for the powder of sympathy, which I’m sure you could seek out if you were interested.

Kenelm Digby died in 1665, and was buried alongside Venetia. Sadly their tomb was lost in the Great Fire of London the following year. The gold bust was looted. Someone once caught sight of it on a market stall but, when he went back for it, it had gone. Digby’s reputation was also largely forgotten. He struggled hard against the legacy of his father’s treachery. He became a learned man, he freed slaves, he brought home plundered wealth. He was an important figure at the courts of both Charles I and Charles II. Yet he was mostly remembered as a bit of a quack, who thought you could get rid of warts by washing your hands in a bowl of moonshine. He did think that, but he also invented the wine bottle.


Today I am rather torn. I have a saint who I first discovered a year ago, when this blog was no more than a series of text messages sent during the Leicester Comedy Festival. I also have one of a triumvirate of very peculiar Dutch anatomists whose work I have come to enjoy over the last six months or so. I may have to tell you about both.

02 12 saint julian with stagToday is the feast day of Saint Julian the Hospitaller. I’ve no idea when or where he lived, but he is easily the favourite in my category of unlikely saints. When I’m looking at saints, generally what I’m most interested in is how they are depicted in art and what they have been declared ‘patron saint’ of. A quick scroll through the information on Saint Julian revealed that he is sometimes pictured as: ‘man listening to a talking stag’ or: ‘young man killing his parents in bed’. Among other things, he is the patron saint of innkeepers, carnival workers and murders.

The story of Julian is not unlike that of Oedipus but without the ‘sex with his mother’ part. At the age of ten, Julian left his parents home. Perhaps because he had been cursed by witches who foretold that he would one day kill his own parents. There is another story which tells us that he was completely obsessed by hunting and that, while out in the forest, he shot a talking stag which told him that because Julian had shot him, when he wasn’t doing any harm but just having a bit of a rest in the undergrowth, he would one day kill both his parents and that there was nothing he could do to escape his fate.

02 12 saint julian the hospitallerBut Julian did try to escape, he ran away hoping never to see his parents again. He eluded his fate for twenty years. He settled down and got married. But when he was thirty his parents, who were searching for him arrived in the town where he lived. In a freak encounter, they met his wife who immediately invited them back to the house. Julian was, at the time, out hunting and she suggested his parents, who were tired after their journey, had a bit of a lie down while they were waiting. Meanwhile Julian was visited by a shadowy figure, who I presume to be the Devil, but he is referred to as ‘the enemy’. You can see the enemy pictured above, he’s the one in the pink leotard. The enemy told him that his wife was at home in bed with her lover. Julian rushed home, saw two figures sleeping in his bed and immediately killed them both.

Then, his life once more in ruins, he was about to leave town when who should he see but his wife. She told him the story and they both realised what had happened. Of course, they both felt terrible about it and Julian and his wife moved away. They took up ferrying people backwards and forwards across a river and taking in weary travellers as penance. Then one day they ferried a leper over the river in a terrible storm. They warmed him, fed him and even acquiesced when the leper asked to be put to bed with Julian’s wife when he just couldn’t get warm. Luckily, the leper turned out to be an angel in disguise and he forgave them for their sins. All this is in an extremely long and dull account of the Saint’s life from the Golden Legend. Take my advice and give it a miss. But it seems to end with Julian and his wife being murdered in their beds by robbers.

If you want to read something really spectacular about Julian the Hospitaller, there is a story by Gustave Flaubert. In it, Julian is an enormously blood-thirsty child whose trail of slaughter begins with him killing a mouse in church and escalates until he slaughters an entire valley full of deer. That’s when he gets cursed by the stag. At the end, the leper gets into bed with Julian, not his wife. You can find it here. Or, if you don’t like the sound of that, there is a tale in Bocaccio’s Decameron about a devotee of Saint Julian which is relatively easy to find. The Decameron is a long series of one hundred tales that is, in format, a little like the Canterbury Tales. It is an early written source for many of the fairy tales of Perrault. In Bocacchio’s tale, a travelling merchant, who always prays to Julian for a good place to spend the night, is attacked by robbers, abandoned by his servant and left out in the snow in just his shirt. But then he gets taken in by a lady whose lover has deserted her for the evening. They both have a lovely time and it all ends happily.

02 12 jan swammerdamToday is also the birthday of Jan Swammerdam, which is an excellent name. Swammerdam was born on this day in 1637 in Amsterdam. He is probably best remembered for his work on insects. He discovered that insects do not spontaneously spring to life out of the mud, like everyone thought, but come from eggs and larvae. He discovered this using a microscope and once dissected a caterpillar for Cosimo de Medici to show him that it already had, inside its body, the beginnings of the wings it would grow when it became a butterfly. He also found, more than a hundred years before Galvani, that when the muscle of a frog’s leg contracts, it does not increase in size. He expected that it would because it was thought that muscles were controlled by animal spirits running through the nerves. If the muscle was full of spirits, it should get bigger. It didn’t. If anything, it shrank a little. Unfortunately, Swammerdam just thought there was something wrong with his experiment and he abandoned it.

Neither of those things are how I first met him though. I came across him because of a huge controversy between himself and fellow student Regnier de Graaf over who had been the first to discover that eggs grew inside human female ovaries. Both men had been students of Johannes van Horne at the university of Leiden in the Netherlands along with a man now known as Steno. Anatomists had dissected female reproductive organs before, they had noticed ovaries, but referred to them as ‘female testes’ and didn’t really know what they were for. Steno theorised that they would probably turn out to contain eggs: “I have no doubt that the testicles of women are analogous to the ovary” was what he said, but he didn’t do anything to prove it. Swammerdam and his tutor van Horne did though. They set about trying to find the eggs in human ovaries. Van Horne managed to publish a brief account of his discoveries in 1668. But then in 1670, he died of plague. Swammerdam continued their work but soon found out that fellow student, de Graaf, was working on the same thing.

What happened next was something between a race to publish and a fight that dragged in the newly formed Royal Society in London. De Graaf published a paper where he theorised that the eggs were fertilised by seminal vapour rising up from the womb. Swammerdam responded by drawing a picture of a dissected human ovary and uterus and sending it to the Royal Society. In March 1672 de Graaf published a book about female generative organs. He had noticed that, in rabbits there were burst follicles in the ovaries after mating and also round objects in the fallopian tubes. He concluded that they were eggs that had come form the burst follicles and that it was as a result of mating.

02 12 miraculum naturaeSwammerdam published his own account two months later. He said the bursting follicles thing was nonsense because he had observed the same thing in the ovaries of virgins. He also stated that he and van Horne had come up with the idea first (there was no way of proving him wrong) and also de Graafs drawings were rubbish. Swammerdam dedicated his book to the Royal Society and also sent them a beautifully preserved female uterus along with twelve other items of genital anatomy, including a dissected penis, a clitoris and a hymen. He asked the Royal Society to adjudicate in their argument over which of them had come up with the idea of women having eggs first. De Graaf came back with a publication entitled: ‘Partium Genitalium Defensio’ (Defence of the genital parts). In it he was very rude about Swammerdam and accused him of being ‘blinded by anger and hatred’, but didn’t really come up with any new evidence that would help with the egg controversy.

I feel rather sorry for the Royal Society. How were they supposed to come up with a suitable answer? They appointed a committee of three and eventually found in favour of… Steno. It didn’t really matter though because de Graaf died a week before they made their final decision. Swammerdam wrote a reply, but we don’t know what he said, because the letter is lost. Steno had, by that time, given up science and become a bishop. So he probably never knew about any of it. The Royal Society had had enough of it all by then and didn’t even publish the report on their findings for another eighty years. They liked Swammerdam’s anatomical specimens though. Their secretary, Henry Oldenberg described them as: “very fascinating and prepared with exceeding ingenuity.” In fact, in later years he got into trouble with the Royal Society for taking them home with him.

Nullus in Verba

01 25 robert boyleToday is the birthday of Robert Boyle, a famous chemist and founder member of the Royal Society. He was born on this day in 1627 in County Waterford, Ireland. He was the fourteenth child, and seventh son of Richard Boyle, 1st Earl of Cork. So he was born in a huge castle, Lismore Castle, which his father had bought from Sir Walter Raleigh. But Robert, like his brothers before him, was fostered out to a local Irish family so that he could learn the language. The idea was that the boys would be able to act as translators for their English-speaking father.

He spent three years at Eton before taking off, along with a tutor and an elder brother, on a six year Grand Tour of Europe. He visited France, Switzerland and Italy. He visited Florence shortly before Galileo died. He became a firm believer in Christianity when, in December 1640, he was awakened by such a tremendous thunderstorm that he believed the Day of Judgement was at hand. He remained devout for the rest of his life and his later experiments in no way compromised his religion. He firmly believed that God wanted us to properly understand the way the world worked. Why else would he have made it so complicated? Whilst Robert was away his father died, leaving him a large country house in Dorset and estates in Ireland. So he never really needed to worry about money. But when he arrived in England in 1644, the country was in the middle of a Civil War. Boyle did a pretty good job of steering clear and was careful not to appear to be on either one side or the other.

Some time in 1646/7 he became passionately interested in science and built himself a laboratory. Like many scientifically-minded people of his day, he was hoping to find the Philosophers Stone. A substance which would transmute lead into gold and hopefully confer on its creator, the gift of eternal life. He failed at this, which is no surprise, but he does seem to have been a little disappointed. But he was undeterred and began to visit London to meet with other like-minded people. Around 1655 he moved to Oxford. Although he was never officially part of the university, he met plenty of people who were, including Robert Hooke who would help him build some of his most important experiments.

01 25 boyle air pumpIn 1657, they began to experiment with vacuums, using the equipment pictured above. It looks terrifically complex, but what it is, is a large glass container that they could put things inside and then pump all the air out to see what happened to them. They put a bell inside and used a magnet from the outside to move the bell and make it ring. As they pumped out the air, they observed that the sound of the bell became more and more faint. They had discovered that sound cannot travel through a vacuum, yet magnetic forces can, or else they would not have been able to make the bell move. Also, the experiment showed them that light could travel through a vacuum, because they could still see the bell inside. They found that a lit candle went out when they removed the air, proving that a vacuum will not support combustion. Boyle made a further guess that it was only a small part of the air that allowed the flame to burn. No one was yet able to separate the different gases in the air but, over a hundred years later he would be proved right.

In 1660, following the Restoration of the Monarchy, he was one of a group of individuals who formed the nucleus of the Royal Society with the support of King Charles II. They dedicated themselves to revealing nature’s secrets through experiment and their motto was, and still is, ‘Nullus in Verba’ which means: ‘take nobody’s word for it’. If they couldn’t prove something for themselves, they couldn’t believe it was true. Boyle was instrumental in detaching science from alchemy. Alchemists were notoriously secretive about their methods, whereas Boyle insisted that his experiments must be shared so that anyone could repeat them. He published all the methods of his experiments and the results. He also realised that experiments and their results must be repeatable, just to make sure what they concluded was really right. This is the absolute bedrock of modern scientific investigations and we have Boyle to thank for it. He also realised that there was as much to be learned from a failed experiment as a successful one.

Boyle has a scientific law named after him which states that the volume of a gas will decrease, in a predictable way, in inverse proportion to the amount of pressure put upon it. This may sound obvious, but it wasn’t at the time. If you couldn’t compress a gas, the size of the propane bottles I use to run my gas cooker would be unfeasibly large. He also rejected Aristotle’s idea that everything was made up of earth, air, fire and water. He believed that some substances were elements, while others were compounds, made up from those elements. This was, for him, just a theory as there were no experiments to identify which was which. He also believed that everything was made up of tiny particles suspended in a void. What we would call atoms. His alchemical roots meant that he firmly believed that one element could be transmuted into another, such as lead into gold, he just didn’t know how to do it. This is not entirely untrue as, in 1919, Ernest Rutherford successfully transformed nitrogen into oxygen.

Robert Boyle was able to spend his whole life pursuing his scientific curiosities because, being wealthy, he had no need to earn a living or to find a patron. But he still thought of plenty of things that he hoped science would be able to give us in the future. In fact, he wrote a list. It reveals just how widely his thoughts ranged. Many of his hopes have now become reality. It’s a great list:

1. The Prolongation of Life.
2. The Recovery of Youth, or at least some of the Marks of it, as new Teeth, new Hair colour’d as in youth.
3. The Art of Flying.
4. The Art of Continuing long under water, and exercising functions freely there.
5. The Cure of Wounds at a Distance.
6. The Cure of Diseases at a distance or at least by Transplantation.
7. The Attaining Gigantick Dimensions.
8. The Emulating of Fish without Engines by Custome and Education only.
9. The Acceleration of the Production of things out of Seed.
10. The Transmutation of Metalls.
11. The makeing of Glass Malleable.
12. The Transmutation of Species in Mineralls, Animals, and Vegetables.
13. The Liquid Alkaest and Other dissolving Menstruums.
14. The making of Parabolicall and Hyperbolicall Glasses.
15. The making Armor light and extremely hard.
16. The practicable and certain way of finding Longitudes.
17. The use of Pendulums at Sea and in Journeys, and the Application of it to watches.
18. Potent Druggs to alter or Exalt Imagination, Waking, Memory, and other functions, and appease pain, procure innocent sleep, harmless dreams, etc.
19. A Ship to saile with All Winds, and A Ship not to be Sunk.
20. Freedom from Necessity of much Sleeping exemplify’d by the Operations of Tea and what happens in Mad-Men.
21. Pleasing Dreams and physicall Exercises exemplify’d by the Egyptian Electuary and by the Fungus mentioned by the French Author.
22. Great Strength and Agility of Body exemplify’d by that of Frantick Epileptick and Hystericall persons.
23. A perpetuall Light.
24. Varnishes perfumable by Rubbing.

Thinking Big

12 25 isaac newtonFirst of all, a very merry Christmas to you or, if Christmas is not your thing, I hope your day is going as well as can be expected. Today is the birthday of Isaac Newton. Well, it sort of is. It depends how you look at it. Newton was born on December 25th 1642. But in 1752, when Britain adopted the Gregorian Calendar, his birthday became January 4th 1753. But, as he died in 1726, that didn’t trouble him, so it needn’t trouble us either.

Newton had a difficult start in life. Firstly, his father died three months before he was born and secondly, he was born extremely prematurely. Newton was so small that his mother said he would have fitted into a quart pot, that’s two pints. Then, when he was three, his mother remarried and left him behind with his grandmother when she went to live with her new husband. Newton clearly did not enjoy this arrangement. When he was nineteen, he wrote a list of what he considered to be his sins. Among them was “Threatning my father and mother Smith to burne them and the house over them”. There are others that betray his quick temper: “Punching my sister” and “Wishing death and hoping it to some”. But most are more innocent. Eating an apple in church and baking pies on a Sunday.

Newton was a natural philosopher, which is what we would now call a scientist. He was born in the same year that Galileo died and, at that time, everyone was still pretty shocked by Galileo’s suggestion that the earth was not at the centre of the universe. He grew up in difficult times, the Civil War, the beheading of Charles I, Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth and the restoration of Charles II all happened before he was twenty.

He studied at Trinity College, Cambridge where he worked hard and read all the latest scientific ideas. By this time everyone was pretty happy to accept the earth and other planets went round the sun, but the question was how. Descartes thought that all things in the universe were part of a machine, like a clock. Newton wasn’t so sure. He thought it all seemed a bit vague and the only statements that you could really say were true were ones you could prove by experiments or calculations.

In 1665 the whole university had to close because of an outbreak of bubonic plague. Newton went home, but continued to work there. It was from this time that his famous falling apple story originates. According to Newton, it was an apple falling in his garden that made him think that the force that pulled the apple towards the ground was the same force that kept the moon in orbit. He spent a long time trying to work out what the strength of that force must be, but he couldn’t quite make his calculations work and he put them aside. But he did manage to figure out a way of calculating the speed of the falling apple at any point between the tree and the ground. He had invented a terrifically complicated branch of mathematics called calculus. With calculus it is possible to work out how all sorts of things change, not just velocity. It is used to predict the movements of the stock market and to see what the effects of climate change might be.

12 25 reflecting telescopeIt was also at this time that he made his discovery that white light was made up from all the colours of the rainbow combined. You probably know he did this using a prism. But before this, he did another experiment on himself. He took a large needle, stuck it between his eyeball and his skull and wiggled it around a bit to see how it affected his vision. He saw white, dark and coloured circles. Don’t try this at home. He also noticed that the curved edges of the lens in a telescope tended to work in the same way as a prism and create coloured flares around the object being observed. Telescopes were, in those days, many feet long and quite cumbersome. Newton built himself a much shorter telescope, which used mirrors instead of a lens, that was free from the colour distortion. He had invented the reflecting telescope. It was only six inches long but could magnify forty times, much better than a telescope ten times as long. The huge telescopes we use today, even the ones we launch into space, are based on Newton’s model. He thought of it as just a toy, but one of his friends took it to show Charles II and, as a result, he was made a member of the Royal Society and became pretty famous.

But Isaac Newton was working on other things as well, that he didn’t tell anyone about. Isaac Newton was an alchemist. Alchemists were an odd lot by today’s standards. They used a series of complex experiments to try to produce a substance called ‘The Philosopher’s Stone’. With it, they believed they could cure all illnesses, make themselves immortal and make lead into gold. There were lots of alchemists in sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe who were employed by royalty and noblemen to make gold for them. The penalty for failure was high. They would be hanged from a gilded scaffold, perhaps wearing a suit of tinsel, just to draw extra attention to their hubris. Alchemy was actually forbidden in Britain because the government was worried that they would use their fake gold to debase the currency. No one really knows why Newton took up alchemy, or what he was trying to do. We do know that he thought there was some lost knowledge about the world that was to be found in the form of coded alchemical recipes hidden in Greek myths. His notes on these experiments are oddly worded, which is not unusual for alchemists. He refers to ‘the green lion’ and ‘the minstrel blood of the sordid whore’. It’s all very esoteric and not at all what you would expect from a person we think of as such an important figure in the Age of Reason.

It wasn’t just his Alchemy that Newton kept a secret. He also had some pretty dangerous religious views that he kept to himself. He didn’t believe in the Holy Trinity. He did believe in an all powerful God, but the more he read, the less he believed that Jesus was divine. If anyone had found out, he would certainly have lost his job and his credibility and probably would have been imprisoned. He owned more than thirty bibles and studied them intensely. He used them, combined with astronomical information to date the beginning of civilization to around 980 BC. He also looked to the future and calculated that the apocalypse would happen no sooner than the year 2060, which is looking a bit closer to us than it did to him. He applied the same level of attention to this as he did to his scientific work and spent about thirty years on it. Newton actually wrote more about alchemy and theology that he did about maths and science, though these writings were not discovered until fairly recently. For him religion and science were equally important in his quest to understand the universe.

12 25 newtons principiaBy the time he was in his early forties though, he went back to physics. Edmund Halley asked him a question about the shape of orbit described by a planet. Newton had worked it out ages ago and it was an ellipse. Astronomers thought that the planets were held in orbit around the sun by some force, but they didn’t know what it was. Newton used his calculus to prove that it was gravity that made the planets move the way they did. But he wanted to know why they remained in motion. He worked tirelessly over the next eighteen months to figure it out. The result was his most famous work ‘Principia Mathematica’. It was hugely important and explained how the whole universe might work and how everything in it obeyed the same laws of gravity. If you throw a ball it travels in an arc because it is must eventually fall back to earth. But planets also travel in an arc for basically the same reason. His Principia is where he came up with his three laws of motion. That an object will tend to remain travelling in a straight line, that its speed depends on the force that started it moving and that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The moon remains in orbit around the earth because the speed that it is moving is balanced by the pull of the Earth’s gravity. The proportions are just right to stop it either drifting away from us or falling down to earth. If this was true for the earth and the moon, it could be true for the whole of the solar system, the whole of the universe. He called it his ‘Universal Law of Gravitation’.

In case you’re feeling intimidated by his towering intellect, here’s one more story about Newton. He is credited with having invented the cat flap. As any cat owners will know, you waste a lot of time opening and closing doors for them when they want to go in and out. To get round this problem, he cut a hole in the door of his workroom. But then his cat had kittens. So he cut a smaller hole next to it for the kittens to go through. It didn’t occur to him that the kittens would just follow their mother through the big one.

Don’t Look At Me

10 10 henry cavendishToday is the birthday of Henry Cavendish, who was born in Nice in 1731. Henry was a natural philosopher, which is what scientists were known as in the eighteenth century. He came from and extremely wealthy family, was a member of the Royal Society and was also painfully shy. He was so shy that this drawing is the only image we have of him that was drawn from life. The man who made it had to sketch it in secret from the other side of the room. The coat and hat he is wearing were very old-fashioned, but it wasn’t the type of thing that bothered him. When his coat wore out, he would have a new one made exactly the same.

Although he attended Cambridge university for three years, he left without taking a degree. The idea of sitting in front of an examiner was just too much for him. Instead he returned to his father’s London home where he set up his own laboratory. I don’t really know what he did for the next seven years, because he like to keep himself to himself, but in 1758 he started to go to the Royal Society with his father. In 1760 he was made a member. Dinners at the Royal Society were pretty much his only social appointment. At home, he found ordering dinner difficult. Although he was generally easily flustered by human contact, he was particularly alarmed by women. So any contact made with his female servants was done via a note left on the hall table.

Despite his oddities, he was a very gifted experimental scientist, a fastidious observer and note taker. A lot of the discoveries he made went unrecognised until long after his death because he published very little. He was the first person to investigate the properties of hydrogen, which he made by dissolving metals in strong acid. He named it inflammable air, for obvious reasons. He also experimented with igniting his flammable air in oxygen, which was then called ‘phlogisticated air’ and found that it produced a small amount of water. Without really understanding the principals, he had found out that water was made from hydrogen and oxygen.

His other famous experiment was the time he worked out the weight of the earth. He was trying to find out it’s density and to do this he needed to measure the gravitational pull of much smaller objects. The way he did this is terribly complicated and, not being a scientist, I find it difficult to understand, let alone explain. It involved some lead balls suspended inside a shed. Cavendish had to observe his experiment from outside the shed using a telescope to avoid either the mass of his own body or air currents disturbing the results. His experiment was so precise, that the answer he came up with was within one percent of the current accepted figure. For decades after his death, parents enjoyed pointing out Cavendish’s shed to their children and telling them that it was ‘the shed where the earth was weighed’.

Henry Cavendish was very highly respected by his contemporaries at the Royal Society, but if they wanted to hear his thoughts on a particular subject, it was rather difficult. Their best bet was to stand somewhere near him and wonder aloud, addressing the room in general. If they were lucky, he might mumble a reply. If they weren’t, they might just hear a squeak and catch sight of him as he ran away. Cavendish had a large library which he moved from his house to a separate building so that he wouldn’t be worried by people who wanted to borrow his books. He employed a librarian and if he wanted to look at one of his own books, he would go along to his library and fill out a slip just like everyone else.

His inability to socialise and his high degree of precision in his experiments have led people to speculate that he may have suffered from Asperger syndrome. He really seems to have been an archetypal science nerd.. Imagine Raj Koothrappali from the Big Bang Theory, but in Georgian Britain.

Venereal Combat And Libidinous Imagining

07 30 de graaf 4Today is the birthday of Regnier de Graaf who was born on this day in 1641 in Schoonhoven in the Netherlands. He is one of a group of medical students who studied at the University aof Leiden. They’re an odd bunch, and all interesting in their own way. The university was founded in 1575 by William I of Orange. It seems that the people of the city were asked to choose between a university and a cut in taxes. They chose the university. Good choice.

De Graaf was really interested in anatomy. He devised a syringe that was capable of injecting a wax substance into the veins of anatomical specimens which would then harden. This made their structure much clearer during dissection. His fellow student, Frederik Ruysch put this method to a very unusual use, but we’ll save that for his birthday in March (or just look him up now, you won’t be disappointed).

07 30 de graaf 1To get back to Regnier, his particular field of interest was the reproductive organs of mammals. Mainly he worked on rabbits but also performed some human dissections. He discovered the mass of tiny tubes that make up the inside of a testicle and concluded that it must be where semen came from. De Graaf’s publishing of his findings sparked a massive row, first with former tutor and fellow students and then with members of the Royal Society in London over who had come up with the idea first. It ended with de Graaf sending a dormouse testicle in a bottle to the Royal Society. They had to admit that he had made his point but wished that he had sent them a larger testicle. His book, with the catchy title of ‘Treatise concerning the generative organs of men; on enemas and on the use of syringes in anatomy’ also contains a method of filling a dissected penis with water to make it erect, thus creating hours of fun for medical students for hundreds of years to come.

07 30 de graaf 3Since the time of Aristotle in had been generally assumed that in humans, fertilization occurred due to a mixing of semen with menstrual blood in the womb. Anatomists had noticed ovaries and called them female testes. They didn’t really know what they did though. De Graaf suggested that fertilization took place in the ovary, involving an egg that originated and pre-existed there. He knew that the already fertilised egg must travel down the fallopian tube into the womb because he had observed ectopic pregnancies.

It also seems that he discovered and described female ejaculation. He describes ducts around the inside of the urethra, which appear to be what are now called Skene’s ducts. He describes a structure surrounding the urethral canal as a kind of female prostate which he says secretes a pituito-serous juice which makes women more libidinous with its pungency and saltiness and lubricates their sexual parts in agreeable fashion during coitus. He believed that the liquid came from a variety of sources including the urethra and vagina. He does not appear to distinguish between the lubrication of the perineum during arousal and an orgasmic ejaculate, though he does describe a fluid which rushes out with such impetus during venereal combat or libidinous imagining. This is obviously a translation as he wrote in Latin but still delightful.

He managed to make all his observations without access to a microscope, which is pretty amazing.

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A Busy Man

07 28 Hooke 1Today I am celebrating the birthday of Robert Hooke who was born on this day in 1635 in Freshwater on the Isle of Wight. He was a sickly child, though I haven’t been able to find out what the problem was. He was also the sort of child who loved to take things apart to see how they worked. He was also pretty good at drawing and used to make his own drawing materials from chalk, coal and iron ore. His father expected him to find work as a clockmaker or an illustrator of manuscripts.

He studied at Westminster School and afterwards at Christ Church College, Oxford. He quickly discovered his lifelong love for mechanics, he really enjoyed building things. At Oxford, around 1665, he became assistant to Robert Boyle, refining the equipment that he used for his experiments.

To put him in some sort of historical perspective King Charles I had been beheaded in 1649 and his successor, Oliver Cromwell, was not keen on scientific research. He didn’t like anything very much, except God, the Bible and being very serious. Hooke became part of a small group of people who were trying to keep alive the spirit of scientific enquiry. They may or may not have called themselves the Invisible College. I hope they did, because it’s a great name. Then in 1660 the monarchy was restored and Charles II became king. He was a much more enlightened person, as we have discussed before when we’ve talked about theatre. Under his reign Hooke and his circle formed the nucleus of the newly formed Royal Society.

Hooke’s role in the Society was as Curator of Experiments, which meant the when he or anyone else came up with a theory, he would design an experiment to test it. He must have learned loads of different things from this work but it led to his tendency to claim credit for other people’s ideas. Not that he didn’t have plenty of his own. He invented the anchor escapement, which regulates the movement of a pendulum clock and the balance spring inside a watch. He improved the design of the microscope to make it easier to focus and also introduced a way of lighting the specimen being examined. Through it he observed a microscopic structure inside plants which he named ‘cells’ because they reminded him of the cells in a honeycomb. He also observed the same structure in fossil samples and was able to conclude that they were once living things.

07 28 Hooke 2In 1665 he wrote a book called Micrographia. It was the first book to be published by the Royal Society. It contained loads of detailed drawings of things that he had observed through his microscope. It was a hugely important book because it revealed a world that nobody knew existed. It was also the first scientific best seller. Samuel Pepys said it was “the most ingenious book that I ever read in my life.” The drawings are pretty amazing and Hooke drew them all himself.

He was a busy man, his work at the Royal Society was not his only job. He was also Surveyor to the City of London and chief assistant to Christopher Wren. Following the Great Fire of London in 1666, he seems to have been responsible for surveying more than half the buildings damaged by the fire. He also had a hand in the design of the Greenwich Observatory, Bethlem Hospital (Bedlam) and the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral.

Unfortunately, in later life he grew rather bad tempered and fell out with a lot of people. There was an argument about who invented the watch spring between himself and Christiaan Huygens which raged on long after the death of both of them. Probably his most famous falling out was with Isaac Newton and it was over who had come up with a theory about gravity. The two men just didn’t get on at all, Newton was a single minded sort of a fellow whereas Hooke had a much more creative approach and his ideas were all over the place. It was probably his irascible nature that is the reason we have no real idea what he looked like. There must have been paintings of him, but no one bothered to keep them. The Royal Society certainly had one but it mysteriously went missing after Isaac Newton was appointed President of the Royal Society.

Apologies for such a long post. Thank you for bearing with me. I can’t show you a picture of him, so here are some of his lovely illustrations instead. Also, as you’ve read this far I’m going to reward you by telling you that in Hooke’s personal diaries he often inserted a special symbol that recorded every time he had an orgasm.

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