January 16, 2007

Tangled Bank #71: Welcome to 1771!

Welcome to The Voltage Gate and to the 71st edition of the Tangled Bank. In perhaps the true form of storytelling, I have reeled in two random, completely coincidental threads of fate - January 17 & TB #71 to bring you:

Tangled Bank #71 Welcome to 1771!

We'll be using the science of the 18th century as a benchmark of sorts; a touch of history to highlight some of the great submissions I've received for this edition.

The 18th century was a time of new ideas and imprisonment for them, sound ideologies hijacked by tyrannous dictators and perhaps most importantly, the temporal cradle of modern scientific techniques, dubbed the Age of Enlightenment.

I hereby declare the links below Enlightened in the same manner, and hope you enjoy your science with a healthy side of history.

Thanks to the turn towards reductionism and empiricism in the 18th century, the repository of scientific knowledge was expanding at an unprecedented rate. In 1796, English physician Edward Jenner was the first to reveal the key to preventing disease through vaccinations. We're still learning about the intricacies of our genetics and the immune system, though at a molecular level, through newly researched cellular pathways, as Charles from Science and Reason explains. At fight aging!, Reason looks into the genetics of Alzheimers disease.

The world of the very small was generally unknown to the scientists and physicians of 1771, leading to the infection and death of great minds like physicist and astronomer Jean-Jacques D'Ortous De Mairan, who died of pneumonia on February 20th of that year. Mike the Mad Biologist illustrates how far we have come in treating pneumonia with antibiotics.

As the early colonists began to move further into America's wildernesses in the 17th century, there was a marked distaste among many of them for what we would call "the environment" today. Puritan Poet Michael Wigglesworth had this to say:
A waste and howling wilderness,
Where none inhabited
But hellish fiends, and brutish men
That Devils worshiped.
In the Age of the Enlightenment, however, with scientific expansion and deistic ideals taking hold (it could also be argued that the wilderness at this point was more manageable, less dangerous), people's hearts opened a bit more to nature. Philadelphian John Bartram - "the king's botanist" - was said to have the following inscribed on his greenhouse wall:
Slave to no sect, who takes no private road,
But looks through Nature, up to Nature's God!
And so the seeds planted nearly 300 years ago are starting to blossom, especially on the blogosphere: Jen from the Infinite Sphere shares her exploration of Utah with words and pictures. The Scientific Activist ponders the usefulness of art in spreading the word about climate change. Don't tell Oscar Wilde...

The word "dinosaur" was nonexistent in 1771. The first recorded discovery and description of a dinosaur bone comes about 100 years before, though without any correlate, it was not named. In 1763, however, a gentleman named Richard Brookes decided to name the creature for what the piece of bone looked like - Scrotum humanum. The femur was later rightly attributed to Megalosaurus. Nice try, Dick. Diane from Science Made Cool shares similar irritation with pseudoscientific attributions through her experience reading a book on dinosaur behavior somewhat lacking in evidence.

Museums in the 18th century were mostly for researchers and the cultural elite (royalty, etc). As Michael J. Ryan of PALAEOBLOG explains, the British Museum gave those who could afford it a little peek into the efforts and collections of the scientific community in 1759. The British Museum would not open permanently to the public for almost 100 years after, when Huxley had Owen booted from the Zoological and Royal societies of England. We owe much to Huxley's efforts Owen's efforts after his ejection; he gave ordinary people a key to worlds of knowledge previously held captive by the privileged. Bradford Washburn, head of the Boston Museum of Science surely held the same ideals as Huxley Owen; Tim Abbott of Walking the Berkshires gives us the highlights of Washburn's extraordinary life upon learning of the curator's death at 96.

In the 1770's plantations and farms in the New World and Old were beginning to take the shape of modern agriculture, diversifying livestock and cash crops like wheat, tobacco and corn. New inventions like the cotton gin helped farmers conquer some of the problems of the past. In today's world, our agricultural problems are vastly more complex, such as the potential proliferation of Swine Flu as Tara from Aetiology describes, the risks involved with the introduction of non-native bees as crop pollinators, detailed by Jennifer from Invasive Species Weblog, or the misallocation of our crops for fuel, from me.

Plantations are historically connected, at least in the minds of Americans, with slavery, which was still very much accepted in the 18th century. Larry from Riverside Rambles shares another story of oppression and exploitation between Polyergus and Formica ants.

As an idea, Evolution was all but nonexistent in the 18th century; Jean-Baptiste Lamarck had the process right, generally, but his proposed mechanism was entirely wrong. Darwin gave him some props in Origin of Species while discussing vestigial eyes of blind animals, stating that they were "probably due to gradual reduction from disuse, but aided perhaps by natural selection," an idea initially proposed by Lamarck. The eyes have it. GrrlScientist from Living the Scientific Life reviews an accurate study of eye evolution and color, showing our biological prejudice for others of the same eye color, while Phillip from Past Lessons, Future Theories reaches into the distant past to discuss the RNA world hypothesis. Ion Zwitter from Avant News asks the experts: What would the living world's systems resemble if God lost His dice?

LOST POSTS: Mike from 10,000 Birds has a great post making the distinction between an introduced species and a wild species. Martin from Aardvarcheology (formerly of Salto sobrius) highlights the connection between his PhD thesis and one of the 18th century's most famous naturalists: Carolus Linnaeus.

That just about does it for this edition of the Tangled Bank. I hope everyone enjoyed the read. TB will be back in two weeks at Ouroboros, so start sending Chris your submissions.

Shameless plug: For all of you ecology bloggers out there, please check out Oekologie, a new ecology and environmental science blog carnival. We are still looking for hosts and contributors, so let us know if you are interested. Check out the first edition here; the second edition will be hosted at Perceiving Wholes.

The Tangled Bank


  1. Tristram Brelstaff6:15 AM

    The British Museum would not open permanently to the public for almost 100 years after, when Huxley had Owen booted from the Zoological and Royal societies of England.

    You might be being a little unfair to Richard Owen: I had heard (I cannot remember where) that it was Owen who was in favour of public access to museums and Huxley who was, at least initially, against it.

  2. You're right, Tristram. I had my wires crossed, and I apologize for that.

    Corrections noted.