history of science

Book review – Assembling the Dinosaur: Fossil Hunters, Tycoons, and the Making of a Spectacle

6-minute read

Having just reviewed Nieuwland’s American Dinosaur Abroad, historian Lukas Rieppel’s book Assembling the Dinosaur seemed like a logical choice to read next. Whereas the former focused on the plaster casts of a Diplodocus skeleton that American business tycoon Andrew Carnegie donated to museums, Rieppel takes in a far wider sweep of history, studying the role of dinosaurs in America’s Long Gilded Age – the period from roughly 1880 to the Great Depression in 1929. This scholarly work charts the entanglement of economic transformation, notably the rise of large corporations, with the rise of palaeontology and changes in size, scope, and management of museums. Readers with an interest in the history of palaeontology will be particularly well-served by this book.

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Book review – American Dinosaur Abroad: A Cultural History of Carnegie’s Plaster Diplodocus

7-minute read

If you visited the London Natural History Museum sometime before 2015 you will have been greeted by the skeleton of a sauropod dinosaur: a plaster cast of Diplodocus affectionately nicknamed Dippy. Dippy has left the building but is not the only such cast in existence. Historian Ilja Nieuwland here traces the little-known history of the philanthropic campaign that saw Scottish-born business magnate Andrew Carnegie donate plaster casts to museums around the world. Drawing on a wealth of archival material, he examines Carnegie’s reasons and the response of the recipients and the general audience, adding a valuable and surprisingly interesting chapter to the history of palaeontology as a discipline.

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Book review – An Atlas of Geographical Wonders: From Mountaintops to Riverbeds

6-minute read

The 19th century was, for Europe and the United States in particular, a time of exploration and scientific study. Large parts of the world were still little explored and poorly mapped. Concurrent with the production of improved maps and atlases, there was a craze for a unique kind of infographic that has long since fallen by the wayside: the comparative tableau, showing the world’s highest mountains and longest rivers. This lush coffee table book sifts through the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection, one of the most renowned collections of its kind, to give readers a glimpse into the development and history of these unique images.

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Book review – Why North is Up: Map Conventions and Where They Came From

6-minute read

Pick a map. Any map really. Chances are that the map is oriented with North at the top. But why is that? Maps are a visual language onto themselves, rich in iconography and symbols, and especially rich in mutually agreed conventions. So rich, in fact, that you will take many for granted without even realising it. In Why North is Up, cartographer Mick Ashworth leads the way through the history of cartographical conventions, introducing when and why they came into being, and how they have changed over time. And as a book published by the Bodleian Library, it is very attractively illustrated with a large number of maps from their – and other – collections.

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Book review – Luminous Creatures: The History and Science of Light Production in Living Organisms

Beetles do it. As do fish. And squid, sharks, jellyfish, salps, dinoflagellates, and a host of other invertebrates. Bioluminescence, the production of light by living organisms, is one of nature’s most awe-inspiring spectacles and has fascinated humans since time immemorial. Luminous Creatures, written by bioluminescence researcher Michel Anctil, is a chunky book that charts the history of scientific research on this phenomenon by examining the lives and achievements of many of the key players involved. Along the way, it lifts the lid on many of the wondrous details of bioluminescence.

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Book review – Four Revolutions in the Earth Sciences: From Heresy to Truth

Try as we might, science is very much the work of human beings with all their foibles. As such, scientific advances aren’t always straightforward and can run into opposition within scientific circles when new ideas run counter to currently established ones. In Four Revolutions in the Earth Sciences, American geologist James Lawrence Powell demonstrates this by taking the reader through the history of four ideas in the earth sciences that initially weren’t accepted. This was a book I very much wanted to read.

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Book review – Creatures Born of Mud and Slime: The Wonder and Complexity of Spontaneous Generation

Spontaneous generation, the idea that life can arise out of non-living matter, is both alive and dead today. Current science accepts the idea that at some point in the distant past, complex self-replicating molecules arose, which formed the starting point of billions of years of unicellular life. But there is an obsolete side to this theory. For millennia, philosophers and scientists believed that all sorts of creatures could arise spontaneously from the mud and slime this book refers to. In the late 1850s, The French microbiologist Louis Pasteur performed experiments that definitively put the nail in the coffin for this idea.

Quite a few books have been written about the later discussions around this theory and its eventual demise (contemporary examples are John Farley’s The Spontaneous Generation Controversy from Descartes to Oparin or James Strick’s Sparks of Life: Darwinism and the Victorian Debates over Spontaneous Generation). Based on a three-part lecture series, this purposefully short book, which is not intended as a complete history, gives a whistle-stop tour of spontaneous generation from Antiquity to 1769. Are you ready?

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Book review – Discovering the Mammoth: A Tale of Giants, Unicorns, Ivory, and the Birth of a New Science

“Grey as a mouse,
Big as a house,
Nose like a snake,
I make the earth shake, […]”
– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, “The Black Gate is Closed”

Even Hobbits knew about elephant-like creatures. But, not so long ago, we didn’t. This book starts off with a striking realisation. Our distant ancestors lived with mammoths, using their meat, hides and bones, possibly even overhunting them to extinction. Despite having lived side-by-side with these large, majestic creatures, somewhere along the line we forgot what they were – the details of their identity not being passed down the generations and gradually fading from our stories, our myths and legends, and, finally, from our collective memory. Even though their remains were with us through the millennia, we forgot the mammoth. In turn, their remains fueled new myths and legends, from the Greek Cyclops and Titans, to Chinese dragons, the Biblical giants, and the Siberian idea of giant burrowing moles that would die upon exposure to air. How do you reconstruct the identity of a creature for which your frame of reference is gone?

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