Science and Magic

07 13 john deeOver the last year, I’ve mentioned so many people who occupy a rather grey area between belief in magic and the beginnings of modern science, that I cannot let today go by without telling you that it is John Dee’s birthday. Dee was born in 1527, in the Tower Ward of the City of London. Both his parents were Welsh and his surname derives from the Welsh word for black, ‘du’. John Dee is black by name and black by reputation. For hundreds of years, he has been mainly remembered as a magician in the court of Queen Elizabeth I. Shakespeare probably modelled his character of Prospero on John Dee. While it’s true that he did spend a lot of the last thirty years of his life trying to speak with angels, this opinion is rather unfair. Dee was an incredibly clever man.

John Dee went to study at Cambridge at fifteen, passed his bachelor degree at eighteen and was made an original fellow of Trinity College when it was founded by Henry VIII in 1546. Whilst he was at Cambridge, we know that he was stage manager for a production of Aristophanes’ play ‘Peace’. We know this because he built a huge mechanical flying beetle for the play, which caused quite a sensation. This was probably the beginning of his reputation as a magician.

In the late 1540s and early 1550s, Dee travelled Europe. He studied at Louvain, where he became friends with the mapmaker Gerardus Mercator and he went to Paris where he lectured on Euclid. Back in London, in 1552, he met an Italian called Gerolamo Cardano, and together they investigated the plausibility a perpetual motion machine and also a gem that was reputed to have magical properties. I couldn’t find out what conclusions they drew, but I know Cardano decided it was impossible except when it came to celestial bodies.

Dee was an extremely skilled mathematician and learned a lot about navigation whilst he was abroad. He brought back with him, several navigational instrument including a couple of globes built by Mercator. But alongside this, he also studied astrology and the occult. This was not unusual. In the sixteenth century, the mysteries of the occult were every bit as real and useful as the secrets of geometry. But one had to be careful not to be seen to be straying into the realms of Black Magic. When Mary was made Queen, after the death of her brother, Edward VI, Dee cast her horoscope. He did the same for the future Queen Elizabeth I. Mary and Elizabeth, as you might know, did not have an easy relationship. Dee was accused, by a man called George Ferrers of plotting the death of Mary and also of bewitching his children, blinding one and killing another. Dee’s lodgings were searched and sealed up and he was arrested, but he was cleared of all charges. Following his exoneration, he proposed to Queen Mary, the foundation of a national library and requested funds. He was turned down, but began to build his own personal library of rare books and manuscripts, using his own money. His library eventually comprised around three thousand books and a thousand manuscripts. When James Burbage built the first theatre in London, he turned to Dee and his library for advice about what an ancient Greek theatre might have been like.

When Elizabeth was eventually made Queen in 1558, Dee became her personal advisor on matters astrological and scientific. He chose the date of her coronation. Skilled in the art of navigation as a result of his studies with Mercator, he was advisor to many of the English voyages of discovery, including that of Martin Frobisher. He also advocated the country expanding its territories into the New World. He supported this idea with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s assertion that King Arthur had once conquered Ireland and that it was a Welshman called Madoc who had first sailed to North America in the twelfth century. England had a noble history of expansion and a prior claim to the new lands that had been discovered to the west. In 1583, he was asked to advise the Queen on the new Gregorian Calendar that had been introduced by Pope Gregory XIII. Dee thought it was a great idea, and also proposed that the we should adopt January 1st as New Years Day in both the civil and liturgical year. Both were sensible ideas, both were rejected on the grounds that they were a little bit too Catholic for a Protestant country. When the Spanish Armada attacked in 1588, Dee predicted a storm. It was partly down to extremely poor weather conditions that the Armada was destroyed and some credited Dee with conjuring up the storm rather than just forecasting it.

07 13 spanish armada

Dee often corresponded with the Queen on secret matters. He spent several years abroad during Elizabeth’s reign, between 1583 and 1589, and it is entirely possible that he was spying for her. You might like to know that he signed his letters to her ‘007’. The two zeros indicated that they were for the Queen’s eyes only and the seven was a number of magical significance. And, yes, this is where Ian Fleming got it from.

Dee’s political opinions were not as influential as he would have liked and, in the 1580s, he began to turn his attentions more towards the occult. That was when he began to try to converse with angels. This is a subject that I covered when I mentioned his rather questionable assistant Edward Kelley. But I feel I ought to mention that what Dee was seeking to learn was the original language of mankind. The language that Adam used when speaking to God. He felt that these experiments were every bit as important as his mathematical work in understanding the divine forms that he believed to underlie the visible world. He thought if he could understand that, he could heal the divisions between the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches and generally unify mankind. Dee knew he wasn’t able to speak directly to the angels himself. He needed a scryer. Someone who could tell him what the angels said while he wrote in all down. This was how he came to meet Kelley. So it was with Kelly that he went abroad with in 1583. If you need any encouragement to read about Edward Kelly, I’ll tell you that they parted company after the angels apparently suggested that Dee and Kelley should share their wives.

John Dee returned to England to find that his home had been vandalised and many of his scientific instruments and the books from his splendid library stolen. The rest of his life is rather sad. He had hoped, when he returned to England, to help the country’s prosperity through the use of alchemy. Instead, in 1595, he was appointed Warden of Christ’s College in Manchester. He didn’t have much control over the Fellows there. They despised and cheated him. Also, his wife died there, of plague, in 1604. In 1605, he returned to London, but Queen Elizabeth was dead and the new ruler, James I, had little time for magic. He spent the last years of his life living in obscurity with his daughter Katherine in Mortlake, which is at Richmond upon Thames. He was forced to sell off his possessions and make his living as a simple fortune teller. We don’t even know for certain when he died. Either in 1608 or 1609 at the age of 82. Even his grave is lost. It was a sorry end for a once great man.

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.

Dark Times

07 02 etienne robertToday, I want to tell you about Étienne-Gaspard Robert. Robert was an artist and showman, but also a physics lecturer and a balloonist. He died on this day in 1837. I don’t usually celebrate the death of a person here, not if I like them anyway. But Robert’s career was all about death, so it seems appropriate. Robert became a stage magician who was famous for his ‘Phantasmagoria’, which means, roughly, ‘gathering of ghosts’.

Robert was born in Belgium in 1763. He studied at the university of Leuven and became a professor of physics, specialising in optics. But he also loved painting. In 1791, he moved to Paris to pursue his vocation. He arrived only a couple of years after the beginning of the French Revolution and he probably witnessed the deaths of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in 1793. This was followed by the ‘Reign of Terror’ when more that sixteen and a half thousand people were guillotined. They were dark times. Coupled with this, France was at war with Britain. Robert thought he had a fantastic idea that would really help. He proposed building a giant burning glass that could be used to set fire to the British ships. His idea was based on the myth of the burning mirrors of Archimedes, who was supposed to have used mirrors to focus the sun’s rays to set fire to a fleet of ships at Syracuse in 212 BC. I mentioned this concept, when I wrote about Roger Bacon the other day. But the French government didn’t go for it and Robert focused his talents instead on a series of lectures about optics and galvanism.

07 02 burning glass

In 1793, he had attended a magic lantern show by the illusionist Paul Philidor and he realised the potential of the medium. He studied the work of seventeenth century scholar Athanasius Kircher, who is one of the many people credited with inventing the magic lantern. The magic lantern was an early form of the slide projector, with hand painted images on glass slides. Robert added adjustable lenses and mounted his lantern on wheels. The wheels and the lenses were connected in such a way that he could move his lantern backwards and forwards, thus changing the size of the image but still keep it in focus. By back projecting the images onto a waxed gauze screen, he could make his images look as if they were rushing towards his audience. He named his device the ‘Fantascope’.

So what sort of images did he choose to show in his new machine? Well, they were all about death. He could use his lantern to raise from the dead, famous French heroes: Marat, Rousseau, Voltaire. But he did not make the same mistake as Philidor, and try to raise their lost king. Robert, being a talented artist was able to produce pretty faithful representation of the dead. He had so many slides that he could ask his audience for requests and conjure up pretty much anyone. He also made speeches to whip up his audience into a state of terror before the show had even begun and he had unseen musicians playing ghostly music. His first show was on January 23rd, 1898. Everyone was terrified, he was investigated by the authorities and closed down.

07 02 robert's balloonHe left Paris for Bordeaux for a time and it was here that he had his first balloon ride. I’m not going to mention much about his ballooning today, but he went on to conduct several experiments about the effects of altitude: the shapes of clouds, the boiling point of water, the effect of altitude on pigeons and butterflies. From 1803 to 1839 he held the altitude record after flying to a height of 23,900 ft. However, you will have noticed this picture, on the left. This is what Robert imagined, in 1804, balloons would be like in a hundred years time. If you want to know more about what all the different bits are, I can refer you to Andrew Joseph’s blog, Pioneers of Aviation, and he’ll tell you all about it.

When he returned to Paris, he discovered that his assistants had just carried on the show without him. He moved his operation to a more permanent location and he made a good choice. He moved his show to the crypt of an abandoned convent and made it even more elaborate. His audience would have to wind their way through passages and tombs filled with scary surprises before they even got to his ‘Salle de la Fantansmagorie’. They would be seated in a room lit by a single candle, which was then extinguished. Next, they where treated to the sounds of wind and thunder and the sound of a glass armonica. Then, Robert himself would begin his frightening monologue about death and the afterlife. It was along the lines of: no one knows what happens to us after we die, but I am going to show you. All light would be extinguished and the projections would begin. He used a brazier to make smoke, using sulphuric and nitric acid and, for added effect, two cups of blood. Apparitions would begin to form in the smoke above the heads of the audience. He did this by having assistants dotted about with lanterns strapped to their chests. With a more complex lantern he was able to project more than one image and make it seem to move and change. He could make an image of the Three Graces turn into skeletons or make the eyes of his images seem to move. He was able, through using a screen, to present his ghosts alongside live actors and make the two interact.

07 02 fuseli nightmare

His shows presented the popular Gothic iconography of the time. He had images based of Fuseli’s painting, ‘the Nightmare, Macbeth and the Ghost of Banquo, The Bleeding Nun, A Witches’ Sabbath, The Witch of Endor, The Gorgon’s Head, The Opening of Pandora’s Box. He would end the evening with another rousing speech:

“I have shown you the most occult things natural philosophy has to offer, effects that seemed supernatural to the ages of credulity,’ he told the audience; ‘but now see the only real horror… see what is in store for all of you, what each of you will become one day: remember the Phantasmagoria.”

Then a large skeleton would suddenly appear in the room. Robert had the perfect audience. Many people were completely captivated by death, having seen so much of it during the Reign of Terror. Then there was the birth of Gothic literature, with novels like ‘The Castle of Otranto’ and ‘Vathek‘, and corpse re-animators like Galvani and Aldini. Robert performed his show at the convent for four years and then, like Aldini, he took his show on the road, visiting northern Europe and Russia. But this was partly in order to pursue his obsession with ballooning. If you need any more evidence that Étienne-Gaspard Robert was all about death, take a look at his tomb. There is a balloon on the other side of it, but I couldn’t get a picture…

07 02 robert's tomb


06 14 unforbiddenToday, I want to tell you a bit about the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. This is a book that was first produced by the Catholic Church in 1557. It was a list of prohibited books which were considered heretical, anti-clerical or lascivious. The concern was, that these books could damage the morals or beliefs of the faithful. One might question the wisdom of gathering all the titles of books you didn’t want anyone to read, making a big list and then publishing it. But the Catholic Church was pretty powerful. The list grew and changed over more than four hundred years, but on this day in 1966 it was finally, officially abandoned.

Before the invention of printing, a book had been a rare and precious object, as everything had to be written out by hand. Scribes were few and far between and mainly worked in monasteries. In any case, a single manuscript rarely caused much of a problem. So censorship wasn’t really necessary. Then, around 1440, Johannes Gutenburg had his idea for a printing press with moveable type. Suddenly books could be mass produced and widely disseminated. The Church wasn’t keen on that idea. There were even certain translations of the Bible that they didn’t want people to have. But a book might have anything in it, and they didn’t like that at all. Ideas and information could be spread quickly using this new, revolutionary technology and they needed some sort of control to prevent the spread of heresies.

On the list of prohibited books we find Galileo Galilei and John Milton alongside Casanova and the Marquis de Sade. It’s an odd list but it reflects the concerns of the Church. One of the things they really didn’t like was the idea that the earth was not at the centre of the universe. Galileo and Nicolaus Copernicus were forgiven in 1718, long after they were both dead. Poor Galileo had spent the last nine years of his life under house arrest for his work. It is likely that printing restrictions acted as a barrier to progress in many fields of study.

The list could prohibit individual titles, or it could ban the author’s complete work, referred to as ‘opera omnia’. It is a huge list that, by the time it was abandoned, contained over four thousand titles, so I couldn’t look at all of them. But I did find one author whose opera omnia was banned in 1600 and still banned in 1966. Even the Marquis de Sade only got a couple of titles on the list, so I wondered what was wrong with him. His name was Giordano Bruno and, in 1600, he was burned at the stake.

Bruno, like Copernicus and Galileo, did not believe that the sun orbited the earth. But he went further than that. He was certain that every star in the sky was another sun, with other planets orbiting them. And that those planets could support life in, just as ours does. In 1584, during a stay in England, he wrote a book about it called: ‘De l’Infinito, Universo e Mondi’, On the Infinite, Universe and Worlds, This did not sit at all well with the Catholic faith. They didn’t like the idea that God might have an infinite number of other worlds to look after.

06 14 giordano brunoGiordano Bruno doesn’t have a birthday. I do know what day he died, but as I don’t want to celebrate that, I thought I’d tell you about him today. He was once ordained as a priest, and spent eleven years in the monastic system before he went rogue. Then someone found a banned book, a work by Erasmus, in a toilet with his writing in it and he had to leave. He then spent the next sixteen years travelling Europe, causing trouble pretty much everywhere he went with his radical ideas. He couldn’t help himself from telling people that he didn’t think that Mary, the mother of Jesus was really a virgin, that Jesus was not the Son of God, but just a top class conjurer and that God would one day forgive the Devil. He was also terribly interested in magic, which didn’t help his case much.

Bruno delivered a series of lectures in Paris in the early 1580s, but what people found really interesting about them was his amazing memory. This drew the interest of the King Henry III and he was summoned to court, The king needed to know if he was using some kind of sorcery but he explained that he was using organised knowledge, a kind of mnemonic. Whilst in Paris he was able to publish several books on the art of memory. One of them: ‘The Shadow of Ideas’ was dedicated to the king. He also wrote a play: ‘The Torchbearer’ which was pretty scathing about monastic life.

He was arrested when he recklessly returned to Italy and was eventually taken to Rome, where he languished in a tower for six years. Bruno was sentenced to death because he refused to renounce his convictions. As well as his belief in other worlds and all the upsetting stuff he had to say about Jesus, he believed that God was everywhere all the time, so people didn’t need to shut themselves up in monasteries. So that’s why all of his work remained on the ‘banned’ list for three hundred and sixty-six years. The church were still defending their decision to burn him in the year 2000.

So I thought I’d finish up today with a quote from one of his, now unforbidden, works:

“There is one simple Divinity found in all things, one fecund Nature, preserving mother of the universe insofar as she diversely communicates herself, casts her light into diverse subjects, and assumes various names.”

Queen of Nowhere

06 06 queen christinaToday I want to tell you about Queen Christina of Sweden. She is something of a contradictory character. Not entirely good, but also a fascinating person. I didn’t want to celebrate her birth, because she caused a lot of problems for a lot of people. But celebrating her death isn’t really appropriate either, so today I am celebrating her abdication from the throne of Sweden on June 6th 1654.

Christina was born in 1626 and was made heir to the throne by her father, Gustav II. Her mother had already given birth to a stillborn daughter and a second daughter, also called Christina, who died when she was only a year old. When Christina number two was born there was, at first, some confusion over her sex and everyone thought she was a boy. This seems mainly to have been because her body was covered in hair and she cried with a “strong, hoarse voice”. When the king was informed of the mistake he replied: “She’ll be clever, she has made fools of us all.”

Gustav was very fond of his daughter and had her raised with the sort of education normally reserved for boys. She studied languages and philosophy and learned about politics. When Christina was only six, her father was killed in a battle and her mother, who was already emotionally unstable, went completely over the edge. She refused to bury her husband’s body. She kept it in an open coffin and visited it regularly. The King remained unburied for over eighteen months. So Christina’s mother was, fairly swiftly, sidelined and she was raised by an aunt.

06 06 christina and descartesChristina was hugely interested in arts and sciences and, by 1649, had amassed an enormous collection of paintings, statues, manuscripts, coins and scientific instruments. She was equally interested in opera and theatre and was a bit of an amateur actress herself. Christina wanted to make her capital, Stockholm, the “Athens of the North” and she invited many learned men to her court. Most notably, she asked René Descartes. Christina had a lot of stuff she felt she needed to learn about. Her days were long and she decided the only time she could possibly see Descartes was at five in the morning. The climate and possibly the early starts didn’t agree with poor Descartes and, sadly, he caught pneumonia and died there in 1650.

She was not officially crowned until later that year, but it wasn’t long before she was making plans to abdicate. Christina made it very clear that she had no plans to marry, ever. She admitted “an insurmountable distaste for marriage” and “for all things that females talked about and did.” Though this did not stop her having an extremely close relationship with one of her ladies in waiting, Ebba Sparre, who she describes as her ‘bed-fellow’. For most of her reign though, she pursued a punishing regime of long days, a rather ascetic existence and very little sleep. It led to a sort of nervous breakdown in 1651 and she again asked to abdicate. In 1652, under the care of a French physician, Pierre Bourdelot, she was persuaded to stop studying so hard, get more sleep and enjoy life a bit more. He also introduced her to the sonnets of Pietro Aretino.

As she never planned to marry or have children, she made arrangement to have her cousin, Carl Gustav, made her heir. Christina had, for a long time been very interested in the Catholic idea of celibacy and with Catholicism in general, which made a lot of people very uncomfortable. This may have been one of the reasons her abdication was finally accepted. Another could have been that she was just spending loads of money and had become a bit of a liability. There was an abdication ceremony at Uppsala Castle in which she removed her regalia piece by piece. She made a speech and left in a simple white gown. But she had already packed up most of her treasures and sent them on ahead.

Days later, she left Sweden disguised as a man, to make travelling easier. She journeyed through Europe, spending and partying all the way and arrived in Rome in 1655. There, she was warmly greeted by the Pope, Alexander VII, and was accepted into the Catholic faith. Her presence was widely celebrated. Firework displays, jousts, fake duels, operas and all manner of celebrations were held in her honour. Take a look at this carousel (below), which was given for her in February 1656, it’s pretty splendid. She set up home in the Palazzo Faranese and opened an academy for the enjoyment of music, theatre and literature.

06 06 carousel for christina

Of course, as soon as the Swedish government found out about her religious conversion, they cut off all her financial support. Then, she became involved in a very close relationship with a cardinal called Decio Azzolino, who was rather liberal for a Catholic, and that didn’t go down so well. But they stayed firm friends for the rest of their lives.

Cut off from her revenue, she hatched a plan to become Queen of Naples. Spain and France had been fighting over Naples for years and she had the idea that, if she were made Queen, she would pass on the crown to the King of France. When she visited France, in an attempt to organise this, the French found her extremely uncouth. At the ballet, she applauded too loudly and sat with her legs over the arm of the seat. Nevertheless, she was treated with respect by the King and his mother. It was at this time that she visited and recommended the release of Ninon de l’Enclos, who I mentioned back in November.

However, things went terribly awry when she accused her master of the horse of revealing her plans and had him executed. She had to leave France and was not particularly welcome in Rome either. Then, in 1660, her cousin. Carl Gustav died and she thought she might go back and be Queen of Sweden again, But, being a Catholic, they wouldn’t have her and she went back to Rome. She was reasonably happy there until 1666, when she returned to Sweden again and, disappointed by her reception, went to live in Hamburg. There, she found out that her patron, Pope Alexander, had died. The new Pope, Clement IX, was also a friend and had been a regular guest at her palace. She threw a party to celebrate. Citizens of Lutheran Hamburg were furious. The party ended with shooting and she was forced to leave in disguise via the back door.

Christina made a spirited attempt to be made Queen of Poland in 1668, but this also failed. She passed the rest of her years in Rome. She and Pope Clement shared a love of theatre and in 1671, she established Rome’s first public theatre. Subsequent Popes were less keen, and Innocent XI had it turned into a storeroom for grain and banned women from performing. Christina didn’t care though, she carried on putting on plays at her palace.

06 06 queen christina 1685She continued to be a bit of a rebel, supplying the world with her unsolicited opinions, long after she had lost her rights to rule. When Louis XIV revoked the rights of French Protestants, she wrote him a letter of objection. In 1686, she made the Pope put an end to an awful practice of chasing Jews through the streets at Carnival. Then, she issued a declaration pronouncing all Roman Jews under her protection and signed it ‘the Queen’.

When she died, in 1689, she left all her treasures to her old friend Cardinal Azzolino and they passed almost immediately to his nephew, who sold them. Many of her books are now part of the Vatican library. Most of her paintings went to France and many are now in the National Museum of Scotland.

On balance, I really like Queen Christina. She upset a lot of people, but she did what she wanted and she didn’t care. Certainly, she walked off with a lot stuff that almost definitely should have stayed in Sweden but, in 1697, her castle burnt down and it would all have been destroyed anyway. She is one of only three women to have been buried in the Vatican.

She Sells Sea Shells

05 21 Mary AnningToday is the birthday of Mary Anning, who was born in 1799. She lived in Lyme Regis and collected fossils from the cliffs there. Mary made several significant finds including the first two plesiosaur skeletons and the first pterosaur to be found outside of Germany. Her earliest significant find was in 1811, when she and her brother Joseph recovered the first ichthyosaur skeleton that was complete enough to be identified as a new and unknown species.

People were, at that time, very confused about what dinosaur bones actually were. Perhaps they were the remains of creatures that had been drowned in Noah’s flood. Perhaps God had put them there as decoration. Few people had any idea that the earth was any more than a few thousand years old. They had no idea that species might evolve and then become extinct. They thought that the world had been created just as they saw it and that everything on it had always been there. Although Mary was not part of the debate that led to the theory of evolution, she provided much of the raw material that set people wondering.

05 21 anning ichthyosaur skull

Mary was the daughter of a cabinetmaker, who supplemented his income by mining fossils from the cliffs and selling them to tourists. Lyme Regis had become a popular tourist resort, particularly after the French Revolution made travel to the continent less attractive. Selling fossils was a good way for local people to supplement their income. Ammonites were sold as ‘snake stones’, belemnites as ‘devil’s fingers’ and fossilised vertebrae as ‘verteberries’. She was one of ten children, but only she and her brother Joseph survived to adulthood. Infant mortality was not unusual in the nineteenth century, around half of all children born did not survive beyond the age of five. Mary was particularly lucky though as, when she was just fifteen months old, she was involved in a terrible accident. There was an equestrian show in town, put on by a travelling company of horsemen. She was being held by a neighbour who was standing beneath an elm tree with two other ladies as they watched the show. The tree was struck by lightning and all three women were killed. Mary was rushed home and miraculously revived in a bath of hot water. Afterwards, some attributed her curiosity, intelligence and lively nature to the incident.

When Mary was eleven, her father died after falling from the cliff. She continued his fossil collecting work to support the family. It was dangerous work. What made the cliffs along the Dorset coast such a great place for fossils was the fact that they were very unstable. New fossils would be exposed when part of the cliff collapsed during a winter storm. Mary would have to collect her finds before they were washed away and there was always the risk of a further landslide. Smaller fossils, the ammonites and belemnites sold for a few shillings and larger finds were infrequent and unpredictable, so it was hard for her to support her family. When, in 1820, they had become so poor that they were on the point of having to sell their furniture to pay the rent, one of her most frequent customers sold his collection to help support them.

In 1830, a geologist named Henry de la Beche painted a watercolour called ‘Duria Antiquior’ which was the first depiction of life on prehistoric earth which was imagined from real fossil evidence. He based his painting largely on the finds of Mary Anning. Henry had the drawing made into prints which were also sold to help support her in her work.

05 21 duria antiquior

As a women from a working class family she had little formal education. But she avidly read any scientific literature on the subject of palaeontology that she could get hold of and she became very knowledgeable. She arranged and mounted all her specimens herself. Mary became well known amongst geologists and her larger finds went to important collectors who went on to write papers on them. Unfortunately, they rarely credited her.

Apart from her larger discoveries she made two other significant contributions to the science of palaeontology. She suggested that stones found in the abdominal region of ichthyosaur fossils were fossilized faeces. Before that, it was thought that they were a type of stone that had formed in the digestive system of the animal, called a bezoar. This was proved to be correct because when they were broken open the fossilized remains of smaller animals were found inside. This has told us an enormous amount about the food chain in the distant past.

05 21 belemnitesSecondly she discovered that belemnites, a sort of long pointed fossil, contained a chamber resembling an ink sac. Mary dissected their modern relatives, the squid and the cuttlefish in an effort to better understand the anatomy of the ancient cephalopods. Inside the chamber she and her friend Elizabeth Philpot, a fellow collector, found a substance that proved to be fossilized ink. Elizabeth was able to revivify some of the ink and Mary used it to make drawings of some of her ichthyosaur fossils.

Although highly knowledgeable on her subject she was not able to engage fully with the scientific community. In a world where women were not allowed to vote or attend university, she was not allowed to join the newly formed Geographical Society of London. A lot of the material written about her following her death was aimed at children and was rather over romanticised and inaccurate. The tongue twister ‘She sells sea shell on the sea shore…’ was written about her. Long after her death her importance has been recognised and, in 2010, the Royal Society named her as one of the top ten most influential British women in science.

Strange Floral Food

04 02 maria sibylla merianToday I am celebrating the birthday of Maria Sibylla Merian, who was born in 1647 in Frankfurt. Maria was a painter and a naturalist with a particular interest in insects. Her family ran one of the largest publishing houses in seventeenth century Europe. When she was three, her father died and her mother remarried. Her step father was a still life painter named Jacob Marrel and he encouraged her to paint. At thirteen, she began to paint the plants and caterpillars that she found near her home. She became interested in their life cycles and what sort of plants they fed on.

At that time it was commonly believed that, as Aristotle had suggested, insects sprang fully formed from mud, dew or even books by a process that was known as spontaneous generation. People thought that caterpillars came from cabbages and maggots from rotting meat. Insects were thought of as generally awful and, apart from a handful of academics nobody had really wanted to have a proper look at them. So Maria’s interest was an unusual one.

04 02 maria's catapillar bookAt sixteen, she married one of her step father’s apprentices but, although they had two daughters, it wasn’t a particularly happy union. They moved to Nuremberg and she continued to paint, her flower illustrations were also used as designs for embroidery. Also she gave drawing lessons to young women from wealthy families. This gave her access to a lot of splendid gardens where she could continue her insect studies. Between 1675 and 1677 she published three volumes of flower paintings called ‘Neues Blumenbuch’ (New book of flowers). In 1679 she published a book about the metamorphosis of insects. ‘Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandlung und sonderbare Blumennahrung’ (The Caterpillars’ Marvellous Transformation and Strange Floral Food) was particularly popular amongst high society, especially so because it was written in German. It was ignored by scientists for the same reason. They couldn’t take it seriously unless it was in Latin.

04 02 maria's caterpillarsAfter six years of living in a religious community, where it turned out her husband wasn’t welcome, she moved to Amsterdam with her daughters in 1691 and was divorced from her husband a year later. There she continued to teach. One of her pupils was Rachel Ruysch, daughter of Frederick who I mentioned a few days ago. Rachel helped him decorate his peculiar anatomical specimens and later became a well known flower painter. In Amsterdam, Maria had access many ‘cabinets of curiosity’ which were a sort of forerunner of the museum. She certainly saw Frederick Ruysch’s collection. But what she was particularly interested in were the amazing collections of insects and tropical plants that had been brought back from the Dutch colony of Suriname in South America. But rather than look at a single butterfly, pinned to a board and isolated from it’s environment, she decided she wanted to study them in their natural habitat.

By 1699 she had been able to secure permission from the government to travel to Suriname and spend five years illustrating new species of insects. This was rather unusual, as official expeditions were only made for political, economic or military reasons. People just didn’t go exploring for purely scientific purposes, not even the men. She funded the journey herself by selling 255 of her paintings and when she went, she took her youngest daughter with her.


There, Maria travelled around the colony, sketching the animals and plants. She recorded the local names for them and found out what all the plants were used for. She also criticised the Dutch colonists for their poor treatment of the local population. In 1701, she contracted malaria and was forced to return home. In her two years she had discovered and documented many new species that were unknown in Europe and in 1705 she published ‘Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium’. which illustrated her findings.

During her life she described the life cycles of 186 insects and her illustrations were unusual in that they depicted the whole life cycle in a single illustration together with the plant that the insect feeds on. She painted, not just a single specimen,but a tiny ecosystem. Peter The Great was a huge admirer of her work and many of her paintings still reside in academic collections in St Petersburg.

Between Superstition and Reason

02 04 giambattista della portaToday I want to tell you about a sixteenth century polymath called Giambattista della Porta. Unfortunately, I don’t know when his birthday was but he might have been born in 1535. He died on this day in 1615. Giambattista was extremely curious about the world and everything in it. At a time in history when it was still just about possible to hold all the world’s knowledge in a single human brain, it’s always interesting to come across someone who had a jolly good stab at writing it all down. Giambattista della Porta wrote a lot of things about a lot of subjects, he even wrote a few plays, but his best known work is ‘Magiae Naturalis’ (Natural Magic) which covers a wide range of subjects.

He was born at Vico Equense, near Naples into a noble family, but not noble enough for anyone to have recorded his date of birth. His father also had a thirst for knowledge and filled his house with learned men. It was a trait he passed on to all three of his surviving sons. He wanted to give them a well rounded education so that they could all grow up to be fine young gentleman. All of them were pretty talented when it came to science and mathematics but they were also interested in the arts, especially music. None of them had any talent for music and couldn’t sing, but because they were good at music theory, or perhaps because they were from a rich family, they were all somehow accepted into a prodigious music academy. Three tone-deaf mathematicians in a school for the musically gifted must have been very difficult for everyone.


Around 1560 Giambattista founded one of the earliest scientific societies in Europe, the ‘Academia Secretorum Naturae’, Academy of the Mysteries of Nature. Anyone could join as long as they could present a new fact regarding natural science. Unfortunately they were forced to disband by Pope Gregory XIII in 1578 because they had been suspected of sorcery. Despite being in trouble with the Inquisition on more than one occasion, Giambattista himself seems to have largely avoided serious trouble. Though he did have friends who were under arrest. It seems he used his scientific knowledge to smuggle messages to them. He knew how to write a message on the inside of an egg, without breaking the shell. He first wrote on the shell using an ink that he made from galls and alum. As the ink dried, it soaked through the porous shell. Then he boiled the egg. The ink on the outside was washed away, but when his friend peeled off the shell, he could read the message on the white of the egg. That’s pretty damned clever.

Secret messages and ciphers were one of his areas of interest. He wrote a whole book about them. But he was also interested in philosophy, astronomy, astrology, optics, mathematics, meteorology, the art of memory, agriculture, hydraulics, military engineering, distillation, the occult and physiognomy. He perfected the camera obscura and may have invented the telescope. He also disproved, through experiment, an ancient belief that magnets could be disempowered by garlic. He was writing and working just before the dawn of what we call ‘The Age of Reason’ so some of what he says makes sense, but some of it is utter nonsense.

02 04 physiognomyPhysiognomy, for example, involves studying a person’s character by their outward appearance. He believed that if people looked beautiful, they were good. It was an unpleasant theory that once rivalled anatomy in importance as a way of studying the human body. Some of della Porta’s beliefs though are an absolute delight. I found a copy of Magiae Naturalis at Internet Archive and I could have read it all day. It has a large section on the spontaneous generation of animals. He tells us earnestly how scorpions can be made out of chewed up basil leaves or bits of dead crab. He also believed that serpents could grow in the spines of men and tells us that in Hungary, three thousand men died from it.

It’s a strange world that he inhabits, between superstition and reason. In his ‘cookery’ section, he advises against eating a partridge that has fed on garlic, because he says ‘it stinks’, which is fair enough if you don’t like garlic. But he also tells us not to eat the meat of a deer in the summer, because they eat adders then and it makes them poisonous.

In his chapter on hunting, he tells us that animals can be trapped with two kinds of bait, food or love. He describes catching a male cuttlefish by attracting it with a female, which is sensible. But then he describes how to catch a fish called a sargue, which is a kind of sea bream. The thing he thinks you need to know about the sargue is that it really, really loves goats. Can’t get enough of them. Whenever a goat comes near the shore it will swim up to be near it. He offers no explanation for this. The best way to catch one is therefore to dress up in a goatskin, complete with horns, and hang around on the beach.

Among his own scientific investigation that were less successful was an attempt to invent what he called a ‘sympathetic telegraph’, an invention for sending messages. There were two devices a little like compasses. Only instead of directions on the dial it had the letters of the alphabet. He hoped that by using a magnet to drag the point to the letters on one device, it would somehow be communicated to the other one, even if it was far away. He also experimented with sound. He knew that sound travelled through the air and he knew that you could speak to someone through a lead pipe. He really thought that if you could construct a long enough pipe, you could stop up the end before the sound had travelled all the way through and then open it up and listen to it later. He blamed his lack of success in this on his inability to find anyone who could build a long enough pipe.

It must have been a terribly frustrating time to be a scientist, with so much superstitious nonsense that was indistinguishable from reality, no clear scientific method, no reliable body of work to build on and running the risk of falling foul of the Inquisition. One of his friends, Giordano Bruno endured a seven year trial and was eventually burned at the stake. Mainly for suggesting that the earth went round the sun.

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.

Water, Water Everywhere

12 30 jan baptist van helmontToday I want to tell you about Jan Baptist van Helmont, a chemist, alchemist, physiologist and physician who was born in Brussels in 1580 and died on this day in 1644. He studied the classics and was taught magic and mystical philosophy by the Jesuits before settling on a study of medicine. He practised medicine until he married money, then he devoted himself to a study of chemical philosophy. Van Helmont was both a man of science and a man of God and I’m always rather impressed by people who manage to make advances in scientific knowledge despite their belief in a divine creation.

Van Helmont refuted the idea that there were four elements: earth, air, fire and water. He believed that there were only two. Fire, he said, was definitely not and element and neither was earth as he felt it could be reduced to water. In his universe, there was air and everything else was made of water in some form. His theory was, he thought, supported by the creation story found in the book of Genesis. He carried out an experiment which would prove that a tree is made of water. People generally believed that a tree grew by eating soil, which is a delightfully quaint idea. Van Helmont got himself a small tree and weighed it. It weighed 5 lb. Then he weighed out 200lb of dry soil, put it in a pot, planted the tree and watered it. He kept the tree and continued to water it for five years. At the end of that time, he took the tree out of the soil and weighed it again. It weighed 169 lb. When he dried out the soil and weighed that, he found that it was only 2oz lighter than when he started. The tree had eaten hardly any of the soil. As he had given it only water, the tree must be made of water. Of course, he didn’t understand anything about photosynthesis and didn’t know that the tree had also taken carbon from the air. But then he thought air was an element and wasn’t made of anything except itself.

This is odd as he did know about gas. In fact he invented the word. Gas was, of course, another form of water which was liberated by heating. In another experiment, he burned 62 lb of charcoal and found he was left with only 1 lb of ash. The rest had escaped during the burning in the form of some kind of wild spirit he called ‘gas sylvestre’ but what we would call carbon dioxide. No one is sure where he got the word ‘gas’ from. It may be derived from the Greek word ‘chaos’ or from the word ‘gahst’ which means ghost or spirit. He believed the same gas sylvestre was produced by fermenting alcohol and that it was what rendered the air in some caves unbreathable.

Among his other discoveries was the fact that chemicals were involved in the digestion of food. People had thought that digestion was caused by heat, but van Helmont realised if that were true, cold blooded animals like snakes would not be able to digest their meals. Unfortunately he thought that the fluids involved in digestion were governed by spirits that needed to be kept in balance, but that’s alchemists for you. But it did lead him to successfully treat stomach complaints caused by and excess of acid with an alkaline remedy.

Not much of the work of van Helmont was published during his lifetime. Early on he waded into a massive controversy that landed him in trouble with the Inquisition and that probably put him off. There was quite a heated debate going on between the Jesuits and followers of a physician called Paraclesus, of whom van Helmont was one. It was over a cure known as the ‘weapon salve’. A wound could be cured by applying a special ointment to the weapon that had caused the injury. If you read the ingredients, there’s no way you would want to put it on an actual wound. It requires ‘man’s grease’ and some moss which has grown on the skull of a person who has met a violent death. Surprisingly, the debate was not about whether it worked at all, but why it worked. The Jesuits felt that it was all the devil’s work and should be left well alone. Van Helmont believed that it worked because there was a magnetic attraction between the blood on the weapon and the blood coursing through the veins of the patient. This kind of sympathetic magic was very real to people in seventeenth century Europe. He further went on to explain that it probably worked in the same way that sacred relics produced miracles. This was a mistake. He was suspected of heresy and it earned him two years of house arrest. He was not fully absolved until after his death. A lot of his work was published posthumously by his son who, by our standards, was even more odd and esoteric that his father. Which is probably why not many people have heard of him.