2.2 Science

Scientific tradition: Britain’s scientific tradition and record are second to none, with particular highlights being gravity, atomic theory, electromagnetism, evolution & DNA/proteins; Britain was the birthplace of modern science [see below, Royal Society] and the site of what has been called the second scientific revolution [see below, Second scientific revolution], as well as much else besides

Roger Bacon: 1214-94; he was the first scientist, as he stressed the importance of mathematics, did not dismiss data through prejudice, communicated his findings and was convinced of the essential contribution of experiment; optics pioneer, inventing magnifying glass in 1250 and possibly spectacles (eyeglasses were first mentioned in a Florence sermon in, 1306 as having been invented 20 years earlier, by unidentified person met by the preacher; plausibly Bacon); may also have built a telescope; provided first written recipe for ‘the powder, known in divers places, composed of saltpetre, charcoal and sulphur’ (i.e. gunpowder); visionary universalist who wrote of horseless carriages, self-powered ships, flying machines, telescopes and microscopes, chemical warfare, orrery (working model of cosmos), diving apparatus, something that sounds like a pulley system and circumnavigation of the globe (helping to inspire Columbus); ‘Dr Mirabilis’ (Doctor Miraculous - yet he poured scorn on magic and magicians); sought to move beyond ‘natural philosophy’ (observation, reasoning, entrenched authority) to science (based on experiments and expressed mathematically, open to information from whatever source, universal, communication of findings, intended to be useful); ‘Cease to be ruled by dogmas and authorities; look at the world!’; made map on modern lines (projection, latitude, longitude), suggested calendar reform and came up with the modern concept of the dictionary; defied religious suppression, being accused of ‘suspected novelties’; Roger Bacon was a Renaissance Man three centuries ahead of schedule

Francis Bacon: 1561-1626; established philosophical framework for the experimental science pioneered by his namesake Roger Bacon, insisting on rigorous studies and practical benefits; championed inductive over deductive reasoning, as former permits predictions about unknown; father of scientific method; built in the idea that disproof often easier than proof (e.g. sheep might be dogs because they both have four legs but spiders definitely aren’t dogs because they have eight legs); this orientation later built on further in these Isles by Karl Popper who said scientists should try to falsify hypotheses, an attainable goal, rather than attempting to prove them, which is logically impossible, given potential existence of unknown lurking disproofs; Francis Bacon invented idea of progress as addition of new knowledge – ‘for the relief of man’s estate’ – and coined word progressive; 'Read not to contradict and confute, nor to believe and take for granted, but to weigh and consider.... Histories make men wise.'

Magnetism: De Magnete of 1600 by William Gilbert (1544-1603), Elisabeth I’s court physician, was the first true scientific textbook; the Earth is a magnet, Gilbert realised; equinoctial precession is caused by the wobble of the spinning Earth; stars were suns and may have planets of their own; Gilbert coined the word ‘electricity’; Galileo graciously acknowledged his debt to Gilbert, describing him as the founder of the experimental method of science; Roger Bacon (1214-94) was the first scientist, William Gilbert the first modern scientist

Telescope: Galileo Galilei, the great Italian astronomer, physicist and mathematician, heard rumours in 1609 of a Dutch refracting optical telescope – two lenses in a tube – which prompted him briskly to make a superior version of his own and point it heavenwards; yet beating Galileo by a few months, Thomas Harriot (c1560-1621) was the first to record an astronomical object seen through a (Dutch) telescope, the moon, which he drew on 26 July 1609; Harriot, a scholar, mathematician and physicist who had mapped the New World for Walter Raleigh, also made the earliest attested observation of sunspots, in 1610; Harriot showed that the altitude of the Sun can be determined using the shadows cast, for example for establishing latitude in ship’s navigation; even before Harriot, Leonard Digges (c1515-c59) had invented the theodolite [see Theodolite] and the reflecting telescope (i.e. one using mirrors not lenses) in the 1550s and probably also the refracting telescope; in 1576 Digges’s son Thomas (c1546-95) speculated that the universe was infinite; the micrometer for measuring small angles in a telescope was invented by William Gascoigne in 1639; Christopher Wren coupled a micrometer to a refracting telescope to create the first lunar globe shortly thereafter; Isaac Newton invented the Newtonian form of the reflecting telescope in 1669 [see below, Isaac Newton]; this was to avoid the chromatic aberration (the undesirable prismatic splitting of light due to diffraction and consequent blurring of images) associated with the lenses used in refracting telescopes; at the base of the reflecting telescope tube is a concave mirror; light falling onto this is reflected and focused back up the tube to a smaller flat mirror, diagonally arranged to further reflect the light to an eyepiece on the side of the tube; John Hadley improved the design in 1721, providing a superior base mirror; the most famous reflecting telescopes are those of William Herschel, one of which enabled him to identify a new planet in 1781 [see below, Uranus]; Herschel’s ultimate reflector was a monster with a forty-foot-long octagonal tube and a base mirror three feet in diameter and weighing a ton; he came close to being crushed to death on several occasions, when changing mirrors for maintenance purposes; achromatic lens, Charles Moore Hall, 1733, and John Dolland, 1758 

'The John Dollond achromatic telescope, which corrected some prismatic distortion, was only invented in 1758, and did not come into general use – as improved by his son Peter Dollond – until the turn of the century.' (Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder, 2008) 

The zoom lens was developed in Britain in the 1830s to improve optical telescopes, with the first report appearing in the proceedings of the Royal Society in 1834; the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank in Cheshire is a famous radio telescope [see also below, Pulsars]; the mapping of the Milky Way was accomplished in the second half of the twentieth century by radio astronomers in Britain, America, Australia and the Netherlands, who turned their collective attention from cold war dissension on Earth to the heavens, to transpierce for science a ‘single sky’

The Man in the Moon: this work published in 1600 by Francis Godwin was arguably the first science fiction work anywhere; gravity was articulated before Newton, as a man, transported by a flock of swans, experiences the waning pull of the Earth as he travels to the moon; the Copernican view was upheld of the Earth revolving around the sun

Transit of Venus: the transit of Venus across the face of the Sun was first observed by Jeremiah Horrocks in 1639

Royal Society: this scientific academy celebrated its 350th anniversary in 2010; its founding in 1660 marked a new epoch in human development:

'The establishment of the Royal Society arguably gave birth to modern science. The ancient Babylonians had developed complex mathematical techniques to record the stars, the Greeks systemised the organisation of knowledge based on logic, Islamic scholars wrote astronomical and medical texts and Chinese inventors recorded recipes for gunpowder. But none of these became self-sustaining in the way that science is today. The society invented science through insisting that logic be supported by empirical facts, by establishing that experiment could be described by mathematics, and by inventing peer review and scientific publishing to allow the verification, or otherwise, of scientific claims.' (The Economist, 23 January 2010)

There was a reliable knowledge revolution in the 1600s and after; Christopher Wren – later famous as the architect of St Paul’s Cathedral in London and a Renaissance Man if ever there was one – and other members of the Oxford experimental circle of natural philosophers worked on submarines, the first blood transfusions, spacecraft, vacuum pumps etc; Wren for example splenectomised a spaniel to see if it were true that the spleen was vital for life; it isn’t – and the hapless dog lived, while a myth died, at the hands of an experimentalist; the group, calling itself the Invisible College, transferred to London; in 1660 Wren, Robert Boyle and ten other gentlemen gathered at Gresham College in the capital for a drink and to found 'a Colledge for the Promoting of Physico-Mathematicall Experimentall Learning'; royal patronage was obtained in 1663 from the newly restored monarch, Charles II, Wren’s childhood playmate; the founders of the Royal Society were followers of Francis Bacon (1561-1626), who argued that reliable knowledge could only come by testing ideas through experiment; its full title is the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge; the Royal Society was a model for similar societies in Paris, Berlin and Vienna; apart from Wren, the Royal Society involved Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, Edmond Halley etc, with a solitary Isaac Newton in Cambridge engaging with the group later; the Royal Society is the world’s oldest and most prestigious scientific society and the fountainhead of experimental science; the Royal Society’s motto is Nullius in verba – ‘Nothing upon Another's Word’; its Philosophical Transactions was the first scientific journal; its most famous president was Isaac Newton; Robert Boyle established the debates of the fledgling Royal Society as a way of securing trust in reports of experimental findings with openness and civility, which was the foundation of modern science; Robert Hooke was charged with enacting weekly experimental demonstrations and it was his genius for getting mechanical contrivances that enabled rapid progress to be made, for example in the construction of a pioneering air pump for Robert Boyle, the Pneumatick Engine (this led to the enunciation of the inverse relationship between the pressure and volume of gases, later named Boyle’s law); the members of the Royal Society down the centuries have played a unique role in allowing the mysteries of the universe to be unlocked; the Royal Society made English the primary language of scientific discourse, which it remains today

Isaac Newton: 1643-1727; the law of universal gravitation, which he apprehended according to legend after seeing the fall of an apple from a tree; this is the great Eureka moment of British scientific history, captured by Byron's nimble wit (Don Juan, tenth canto, 1821):

'When Newton saw an apple fall, he found...

A mode of proving that the earth turn’d round

In a most natural whirl, called ‘gravitation';

And this was the sole mortal who could grapple,

Since Adam, with a fall and with an apple.'

Newton also engendered the three laws of motion, including ‘for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction’; binomial theorem in mathematics and co-inventor of calculus; besides contributing to the theoretical understanding of astronomy, e.g. the orbits of the planets, he developed the Newtonian reflecting telescope in 1668, as a result of his work on light; this was an attempt to improve on the refractive telescopes used by Galileo in Italy and Harriot in England and others, which were subject to chromatic aberration [see above, Telescope]; Newton also invented the catflap; his Principia of 1687 is the most incomparably influential book on science ever written; it title in full is Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica (‘The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy’); Edmond Halley was the tireless impresario of this publication; Newton argued for the universal applicability of the same physical laws, i.e. that the properties of objects that can be observed on Earth must be assumed to be properties of bodies anywhere in the cosmos; this is the fundamental axiom of science; Newton is the father of physics, as he showed the cosmos to be unified, dynamic, mechanical and mathematically regulated; his credo was that material events must have discernible material causes; Newton predicted that the Earth was flattened at the poles into an oblate spheroid, as was later proved; he deduced that the tides were due to the gravitational pull of the moon, correcting Galileo; he persuaded students of nature, by example, to abandon the Aristotelian ‘why’ approach and concentrate systematically instead on ‘how’; his way with data was modern - using large data sets to get robust averages rather than presenting only his best results, as was contemporary practice; Newton was history’s most sophisticated and systematic alchemist, but this still did not lead him to the philosophers’ stone; born on Christmas day, Newton was profoundly religious and a great scholar of the Bible, producing a revised chronology of the ancient world, the fruit of long years of study and thought; he became an MP for a year, representing Cambridge University, taking part in a famous vote to install William and Mary as Protestant co-monarchs in place of Mary’s ousted father, James II Stuart, who had unwisely attempted to drive the country back into the Catholic fold; the only documented statement of Newton’s during his parliamentary career was a request that a window be closed against a draft; Newton became the most famous-ever Master of the Royal Mint, when it was at the Tower of London, overseeing a recall of the nation’s silver coinage for reminting in 1696-8, to reduce counterfeiting; this was the Great Recoinage; in the course of apprehending counterfeiters at large, he set up a network of informers and undercover agents, becoming the most successful criminal investigator London had known up to that time; the apparently omnicompetent Newton lost heavily however in the South Sea Bubble, a speculative investment crash; Newton became president of the Royal Society in 1703; the second of Newton’s two great books was Opticks published in 1704; though colour-blind, he showed that white light was a mix of colours, each of which could not be split by a second prism, and discerned that rainbows are split-light optical illusions; he had bought a prism at Stourbridge Fair, which allowed him to do pioneering experiments of simple brilliance

'For all his raw intelligence, Newton’s ultimate achievement turned on his genius for perseverance…. If something mattered to him, the man pursued it relentlessly.' (Thomas Levenson, Newton and the Counterfeiter, 2009

With optics, mechanics and mathematics, Newton’s was the greatest contribution to science by an individual ever; he was responsible, more than any other single person, for the modern world; the poet Alexander Pope put it thus,

'Nature and Nature's laws
lay hid in night:
God said, 'Let Newton be!'
and all was light.'

The two individuals who had the vastest intellectual life - range, profundity - of anyone in history were Newton and Aristotle

' “His [Newton's] peculiar gift was the power of holding continuously in his mind a purely mental problem until he had seen straight through it. I fancy his pre-eminence is due to his muscles of intuition being the strongest and most enduring with which a man has ever been gifted.” ' (John Maynard Keynes, quoted in Freeman Dyson, Disturbing the Universe, 1979)

Edmond Halley: 1656-1742; determined the orbit of the periodic comet that is named after him; comets (meaning 'hairy stars') have been described as dirty snowballs; the periodic ones orbit the Sun in vast elliptical orbits

Galaxies: our galaxy, the Milky Way, is a disc of stars like a mill wheel, said Thomas Wright in 1750; it is now known to comprise 300 billion stars and have a supermassive black hole at its centre [see below, Black holes]

'Thomas Wright, the discoverer of galaxies, announced his discovery in 1750 in his book An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe..:

...the many cloudy spots, just perceivable by us, as far without our starry Regions, in which tho' visibly luminous spaces, no one star or particular constituent body can possibly be distinguished; those in all likelyhood may be external creation, bordering upon the known one, too remote for even our telescopes to reach.

Thirty-five years later, Wright's speculations were confirmed by William Herschel's precise observations.' (Freeman Dyson, Disturbing the Universe, 1979)

[For William Herschel, see below, Uranus]

Second scientific revolution:

'...which swept through Britain at the end of the eighteenth century, and produced a new vision of what has rightly been called Romantic science... The first scientific revolution, of the seventeenth century, is familiarly associated with the names of Newton, Hooke, Locke and Descartes... [The second scientific revolution] was inspired by a sudden series of breakthroughs in the fields of astronomy and chemistry. It was a movement that grew out of eighteenth-century Enlightenment rationalism, but largely transformed it, by bringing a new imaginative intensity and excitement to scientific work... Romantic science can be dated roughly, and certainly symbolically, between two celebrated voyages of exploration. These were Captain James Cook’s first round-the-world expedition aboard the Endeavour, begun in 1768, and Charles Darwin’s voyage to the Galapagos islands aboard the Beagle, begun in 1831... This became the first great age of the public science lecture...and saw the foundation of...the Royal Institution in Albemarle Street in 1799, the Geological Society in 1807, the Astronomical Society in 1820, and the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1831...the astronomer William Herschel and the chemist Humphry Davy...the botanist...Joseph Banks...their assistants and protégés, who eventually became much more than that, and handed on the flame to the very different world of professional [& specialised]Victorian science...the precise, even reverent contemplation of nature is clearly associated with the Romantics, and can be seen arriving in private journals and letters from the 1760s onwards.' (Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder, 2008)

Joseph Banks: 1743-1820; his presence on Captain Cook’s Endeavour, 1768-71, turned it into the greatest botanical expedition in history, increasing the number of known plants by a quarter; in this way Banks founded the tradition of scientific exploration; he played a key role in developing the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; he was President of the Royal Society for over forty years, little escaping his all-seeing eye; the working breakfasts at his London residence became legendary 

'...Bank’s personal enthusiasm as the universal scientific patron largely shaped and directed the adventurous character of Romantic science, which now flowered and flourished like one of his most exotic specimens. He revealed himself as a talent-spotter of genius...above all maintaining through a huge network of correspondence and personal meetings the idea of science as a truly shared and international endeavour...Sir Joseph Banks, rolling briskly into one of his scientific breakfasts in [32] Soho Square, keen to meet his next young protégé and launch a new project ‘for the Benefit of all mankind’.' (Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder, 2008)

Uranus: discovered by William Herschel in 1781, using an advanced reflecting (Newtonian) telescope he had made himself [see above, Telescope]; Herschel (1738-1822) was the first man in recorded history (i.e. a named individual) to discover a planet, doubling the known size of the Solar System by so doing; the orbital period of Uranus and the lifespan of William Herschel are identical at 83.7 years; Herschel also worked out the shape of the Milky Way and the Sun’s off-centre position in it, as well as discovering infrared radiation, coining the term ‘asteroid’ and articulated the notion of a dynamic, ever-evolving universe of an immensity beyond human comprehension (‘deep space’), rather than a stable dome of ‘fixt stars’, which was the previous view; his sister Caroline (1750-1848) was a comet discoverer in her own right; musically gifted, both William & Caroline could ‘sight-read’ the night sky with minute particularity; Caroline acted as William’s assistant, receiving (from the monarch, George III) the first professional salary ever paid to a woman scientist in Britain; this, as she put it, was for ‘minding the heavens’ 

' “I have looked further into space than ever human being did before me. I have observed stars of which the light, it can be proved, must have taken millions of years to reach the earth.” ' (William Herschel quoted in Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder, 2008)

William's son John Herschel (1792-1871) mapped the southern skies,  journeying to Cape Town so to do; Charles Darwin looked him up on his way home from the Galapagos islands

'John Herschel's time in South Africa [1834-8], as significant in its own way as Charles Darwin's Beagle voyage [1831-6], confirmed him as the greatest astronomer and general scientist of his generation.' (Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder, 2008)

Wave theory of light: this was developed by polymath Thomas Young (1773-1829); he worked out that the wavelength of light was ~1µm, which is larger than the size of atoms and molecules; Young also estimated the size of the water molecule; he was a physician, played musical instruments and was the first decoder of Egyptian hieroglyphs [see Thomas Young]

Neptune: co-predicted to exist by mathematician John Couch Adams; William Lassel (1799-1880) first saw its largest moon, Triton

Earth’s orbit: variations in this account for ice ages, according to Alexander Croll in the 1800s

Stellar distances: 

'In fact no sufficient parallax was observed until the nineteenth century, when Thomas Henderson measured the distance to the nearest star, Alpha Centauri, as 4.5 light years in 1832... '(Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder, 2008)

Pluto: its name was suggested in 1930 by eleven-year-old Oxford girl Venetia Burney

Arthur Eddington: 1882-1944; the renowned 1919 solar eclipse expedition confirmed that starlight bends around stellar objects, which warp the space-time continuum; the expedition leader, Arthur Eddington, was ‘the man who proved Einstein right’ 

'Einstein replaced the ‘action-at-a-distance’ implied in Newton’s theory of universal gravitation with the movement of massive bodies in a curved space-time. In general relativity, matter tells space-time how to curve, and the curved space-time tells matter how to move.' (Jim Baggott, Higgs: the Invention and Discovery of the ‘God Particle’, 2012)

Eddington worked on the evolution of stars and worked out the energy source of the Sun; a star is a huge ball of gas, held together by its own gravity and heated by nuclear fission; Eddington was the first astrophysicist

Big Bang: named by Yorkshireman Fred Hoyle, who didn’t believe that the origin of the universe some 13.7 billion years ago could be explained by a cosmic ‘explosion’ of space-time and matter

'...the term “big bang” was coined in 1949 by Cambridge astrophysicist Fred Hoyle, who believed in a universe that expanded forever, and meant the term as a derisive description. The first direct observations supporting the idea didn’t come until 1965, with the discovery that there is a faint background of microwaves throughout space. This cosmic background radiation, or CMBR, is the same as that in your microwave oven, but much less powerful.' (Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design, 2010)

Fred Hoyle deduced how helium in stars fuses into the universe’s heavier elements; we are all stardust

Black holes: hypothesized first by John Michell in 1783

'...John Michell, a Quaker astronomer who had retired to Bath nursing some strange, unacceptable ideas – such as the existence of ‘black holes’ in space from which light itself could not escape.' (Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder, 2008)

'…large black holes, like the one at the centre of our own Milky Way galaxy, with a mass of around 4 000 000 times the mass of our Sun.' (Roger Penrose, Cycles of Time, 2010)

[see below, Seismology]

Stephen Hawking: b1942; physicist who has worked on the properties of black holes and explained modern physics to a lay audience; he is confined to a wheelchair [see Powered wheelchair] by a neuromuscular dystrophy and speaks through a speech syntheisizer; Hawking has achieved global iconic status by epitomising the triumph of the human spirit of enquiry over adversity; his book A Brief History of Time, 1988, launched popular physics as a literary genre

'...Hawking's adventurous and initially controversial, but later vindicated, work on quantum field theory in a curved space-time. The core is his innovative paper integrating quantum field theory, general relativity and thermodynamics to establish that black holes emit black-body radiation - now known as Hawking radiation. This unexpected result is uniquely his, and is a major achievement that has stood the test of time. He also made important contributions to studying the beginnings of the growth of structure during the inflationary expansion of the early Universe.' (George Ellis, Nature, 479, 296, 2011)

Pulsars: discovered by Jocelyn Bell Burnell & Anthony Hewish, 1967; these are neutron stars resulting from the collapse of supernovae; they are highly magnetised and rotate quickly; a beam of electromagnetic radiation is emitted from each pole, yielding a lighthouse effect detectable using a radio telescope

Atomic theory of matter: at the root of matter are exceedingly tiny irreducible particles, said John Dalton (1766-1844); Dalton gave hydrogen atomic weight of 1; atomic weights exact multiple of that of hydrogen (William Prout, 1815); valency, a measure of combining ability of elements (Edward Franklin, 1852); chemical bond (Archibald Couper, 1852, with German August Kekule; the term was introduced by Edward Frankland, 1866); atomic number, Henry Moseley, 1913

Chemical elements: nine elements were known to the ancients (gold, silver, tin, copper, lead, mercury, iron, carbon and sulphur), with four more being identified by the medieval alchemists (arsenic, antimony, bismuth and zinc); in the latter part of the 1700s and early 1800s there was a flurry of discoveries, many made in Britain (hydrogen, oxygen etc) 

'...the Periodic Table, first suggested by John Dalton as a ‘Table of 20 Elements’ in 1808 (and organised by the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleyev in 1869, using the card game of patience as a model).' (Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder, 2008) 

118 elements are now known; the pattern of the elements in terms of characteristics and behaviour was described by John Newlands in 1864; Newlands was the precursor to Mendeleyev, the Russian genius providing a  Periodic Table of the Elements, the pattern of which was configured in such a way as to predict then-unknown elements; Mendeleyev in 1902 added as Group 0 to his periodic table the noble gases (helium, neon, argon etc), as discovered by Lord Rayleigh and William Ramsay; in all, British scientists have discovered a quarter of the elements of the periodic table, more than the scientists of any other nation; Humphry Davy (1778-1829) alone found sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, strontium, barium & boron

Henry Cavendish: 1731-1810; discovered hydrogen in 1766, the most abundant element in universe, comprising three-quarters of all the atoms that exist; he conducted a famous experiment to ‘weigh the Earth’, establishing its mass

Joseph Priestley: 1733-1804; discovered life-supporting oxygen in 1774 and in 1768 invented fizzy drinks (carbonated water, i.e. water with carbon dioxide gas dissolved in it, which tasted better than water alone); Priestley named rubber because it rubbed out pencil marks [see Graphite]

'In animal respiration it [air] was utterly changed: oxygen was extracted by the lungs and passed into the bloodstream, while carbon dioxide was exhaled. Both Priestley and [the Frenchman Antoine] Lavoisier agreed on that. Exactly the reverse happened with plants: vegetation ‘restored air corrupted by respiration’. Plants absorbed carbon dioxide through photosynthesis, and returned oxygen to the economy of nature. This was demonstrated not by Lavoisier, but by Priestley, in another classic series of experiments, using air pumps and vacuum flasks, published in his Experiments on Different Kinds of Air (1774-77).' (Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder, 2008)

Humphry Davy: a renowned scientist, Davy (1778-1829) discovered seven elements of the Periodic Table [see Chemical elements, above];  he invented incandescent lighting in 1802, by passing current through a platinum strip, though not the incandescent light bulb as such [see Light bulb]; around 1807 Davy made the first carbon arc lamp, by passing a current between two carbon rods, producing a blinding light; camera obscura silhouettes were first imaged transiently on paper treated with silver nitrate by Thomas Wedgewood (son of Josiah) & Humphry Davy, in 1802; this is a candidate for the first-ever photograph; Davy invented the miner’s lamp at the Royal Institution in London in 1815, saving many lives underground; the Davy Safety Lamp is one of two famous lamps in British history, the other being that of the nation's most famous nurse [see Florence Nightingale]; Davy's lectures at the Royal Institution were a sensation and the talk of the town; he constructed a vast voltaic cell in the basement of the Royal Institution consisting of 800 cells; Davy was the pioneer of electrochemical analysis of compounds; he encouraged manufacturers to take a scientific approach to production; his discoveries in chemistry helped to improve several industries including agriculture, mining and tanning; Davy’s protégé Michael Faraday went on to make great discoveries of his own, particularly in electromagnetism [see Michael Faraday]; early in his career Davy experimented with gas inhalation in a medical context, using himself as prime experimental subject, occasionally to near-lethal effect; as early as 1800 he was speculating on the potential use of nitrous oxide (laughing gas) as an anaesthetic

' ‘As nitrous oxide in its extensive operation appears capable of destroying physical pain, it may probably be used with advantage during surgical operations...’ Part of Davy’s originality was to conceive of the radical idea of pain-free surgery...nitrous oxide mixed with oxygen eventually became one of the standard anesthetic procedures used during labour...'
(Humphry Davy quoted in Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder, 2008)

It was however to be two generations later - long years of avoidable pain - before gas anaesthesia was taken up in medicine; Davy's iodine and chlorine disinfectants were taken up more briskly; Davy solved a corrosion problem on copper-bottomed ships by adding iron plates to the hull; in his last years he served as President of the Royal Society; he was a poet and author of speculative prose works, but above all a man of science

' ‘It may be said of modern chemistry, that its beginning is pleasure, its progress knowledge, and its objects truth and utility.’ ' (Humphry Davy quoted in Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder, 2008)

Michael Faraday: 1791-1867; investigator of electricity and pioneering hero of the electric age; invented the electric motor in 1821 and both the dynamo and transformer in 1831 

'He expanded his work on electromagnetism, and began the construction of the first electrical generators, by producing an ‘alternating’ electric current. This would lead to electrical dynamos that would ultimately revolutionise industry as much as James Watt’s steam engine. His experiment with magnetic coils and a galvanometer (which he made to move without physical contact), carried out at the [Royal] Institution’s laboratory on 29 August 1831, was said to have ended ‘the Age of Steam’ at a stroke, and begun the new ‘Age of Electricity’.'
(Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder, 2008)


'...Faraday also discovered a connection between electromagnetism and light when he showed that intense magnetism can affect the nature of polarized light… One of Faraday’s greatest intellectual innovations was the idea of force fields.' (Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design, 2010) 

Albert Einstein kept a photograph of Faraday on his study wall, alongside pictures of Isaac Newton and James Clerk Maxwell; when asked in the 1850s by future prime minister William Gladstone, then chancellor, about the practical value of electricity, Faraday answered, “One day, Sir, you may tax it.”


Fuel cell: first demonstrated by William Grove in 1839; this turned chemical energy into electricity without combustion

William Thompson: 1824-1907; he was the first scientist to be elevated to the House of Lords, in 1892, as Baron Kelvin; Lord Kelvin developed the second law of thermodynamics and an absolute temperature scale; the minimum possible temperature is called absolute zero; in degrees Kelvin it is 0 K, which is -273.15 ºC or -459.67 ºF (or -1000º, if the freezing point of water is taken as 0º and the boiling point 366º; see Megaliths); Lord Kelvin developed the first working transatlantic telegraph cable; durable undersea cables were made possible by rubber-like Malayan product gutta-percha; in 1873 Lord Kelvin fully realised Charles Babbage’s vision of machine calculations with a mechanical tide-predictor; Lord Kelvin sent the first telegram by wireless in 1898

James Clerk Maxwell: 1831-79; kinetic theory of gases and electromagnetic field theory (‘Maxwell’s equations’); on the latter subject, Maxwell predicted that there were waves longer than the infrared radiation that had been found by the astronomer William Herschel; on the basis of this it can be said that, building on a suggestion of Michael Faraday, Maxwell discovered the electromagnetic spectrum - which includes, from long waves to short, radio waves, microwaves, infrared, light, ultraviolet, x-rays and gamma rays

'At least eleven theories of electromagnetism existed, every one of them flawed. Then, over a period of years in the 1860s, Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell developed Faraday’s thinking into a mathematical framework that explained the intimate and mysterious relation among electricity, magnetism and light. The result was a set of equations describing both electric and magnetic forces as manifestations of the same physical entity, the electromagnetic field. Maxwell had unified electricity and magnetism into one force. Moreover, he showed that electromagnetic fields could propagate through space as a wave. The speed of that wave is governed by a number that appeared in his equations, which he calculated from experimental data that had been measured a few years earlier. To his astonishment the speed he calculated equalled the speed of light, which was then know experimentally to an accuracy of 1 percent. He had discovered that light itself is an electromagnetic wave!' (Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design, 2010)

With his equations Maxwell revolutionised physics; one of Maxwell's dreams, only realised in the twentieth century, was that measurements would be based on the fundamental constants of nature, such as the wavelength of light instead of the metre rod for length; Maxwell, who died in the year of Einstein’s birth, was arguably the most important physicist between Newton and Einstein

'In 1931, on the centenary of Maxwell's birth, Einstein described Maxwell's work on the theory of electromagnetism as "the most profound and the most fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton".' (Brian Cox & Jeff Forshaw, Why does E=mc2? (And why should we care?), 2009

The first colour photograph ever was taken in 1861 by this Scot, of a tartan ribbon; Maxwell also invented the fish-eye lens

Atomic nucleus: Ernest Rutherford, a British domiciled New Zealander of British parents, named the atomic nucleus in 1911 and proposed the modern theory of atomic structure, of electrons orbiting a minuscule nucleus; if London’s Albert Hall were an atom, then its nucleus would be a grain of sand at the centre; to put it another way, if all the matter in all the human beings on the planet were compressed, the object would be the size of a sugar cube; the rest of us is space; Rutherford said on one occasion, ‘We have no money, so we will have to think.’

Subatomic particles: the three main subatomic particles were discovered in Britain – the negatively charged electron (J J Thomson, 1897), the positively charged proton (Ernest Rutherford, 1919) and the electrically neutral neutron (James Chadwick, 1932)

Cloud chamber: device used in physics for detecting particles, in order to understand the building blocks of nature

'Such detectors depend on the passage of charged particles dislodging electrons from the atoms of the detector material, leaving a tell-tale trail of charged ions in their wake. The first detector of this type was invented by Scottish physicist Charles Wilson in 1911. In Wilson’s ‘cloud chamber’ the particle tracks are made visible through the condensation of water vapour around the ions that are left behind. The cloud chamber was superseded in the early 1950s by the bubble chamber...but the principles are very similar.' (Jim Baggott, Higgs: the Invention and Discovery of the ‘God Particle’, 2012)

Isotopes: Frederick Soddy and Francis Aston, 1913 and after; Aston is also regarded as the inventor of the mass spectrometer, 1919

First split atom: Ernest Rutherford, 1917; in terms of splitting the nucleus of the atom in a controlled way, this was accomplished in 1932 in Cambridge by John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton, under the mentorship of Ernest Rutherford

'One such [linear] accelerator was used in 1932 by John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton to produce high-speed protons which were then fired at stationary targets, transmuting the target nuclei in the first artificially induced nuclear reactions.' (Jim Baggott, Higgs: the Invention and Discovery of the ‘God Particle’, 2012)

Chain reaction: Leo Szilard, a Hungarian born British scientist, assigned the patent for a self-sustaining fission cascade to the Admiralty, the HQ of the Royal Navy, in the 1930s


'In 1947 another new particle was discovered in cosmic rays atop the Pic du Midi in the French Pyrenees by Bristol University physicist Cecil Powell and his team...The new particle was called the pi-meson (pion).' (Jim Baggott, Higgs: the Invention and Discovery of the ‘God Particle’, 2012)

The Bomb: Britain was the third nuclear power after US and USSR: atomic (fission) bomb test detonation, 1952, hydrogen (fusion) bomb test, 1957

Nuclear power station: the first commercial one in the world was at Calder Hall, 1956; nuclear power and weapons were foretold by H G Wells in The World Set Free, 1913; in The War of the Worlds, 1898, Wells invented the science fiction ray gun; Wells’s proposal for a World Brain on microfilm, as a universal encyclopedia, can be seen as a prefigurement of the internet

Missile ‘silo’: concrete underground bunker; much emulated British innovation

Antimatter: the existence of this was first predicted by the equations of quantum genius Paul Dirac 

'When Dirac successfully combined quantum theory and Einstein’s special theory of relativity in 1927, the result was electron spin and [in 1931] anti-matter. Dirac’s equation was rightly regarded as an absolute wonder...' (Jim Baggott, Higgs: the Invention and Discovery of the ‘God Particle’, 2012) 

'His insights were so astonishing and so counter-intuitive that it is hard to imagine anyone else devising them…he was probably the best British theoretical physicist since Isaac Newton.' (The Economist, 5 December 2009)

Work with high energy antiparticles is now commonplace and anti-electrons (positrons) are routinely used in the medical imaging technology positron emission tomography scanning; physicists have for example produced antihydrogen – the bound state of an antiproton and a positron

Circulation of the blood & function of the heart: William Harvey (1578-1657); his advice, famous in medical circles was “Don’t’ think, try.”; in 1635 he performed a post mortem on Thomas Parr, said to be the oldest man in England; Parr certainly died in 1635 but is said far-fetchedly to have been born in 1483, which would have made him 152 years old

Blood clotting: the process of coagulation and the clotting protein fibrinogen were first cogently described by William Hewson (1739-74)

Hypnotism: James Braid unbraided it from Mesmerism, 1843, and named it, from the Greek word for sleep

Neurology: Thomas Willis (1621-1675), physician and anatomist, was the father of research on the brain, the known universe’s most complex object; there are reckoned to be 85 billion neurons and a rougly equal number of supporting glia (Greek for ‘glue’) cells; there are more interconnections within the cellular assemblage that is the human brain than there are stars in the Milky Way; the electrical nature of the brain was discovered by Richard Caton (1842-1926) and reported by him in 1875; Andrew Huxley & Alan Hodgkin revealed the mystery of how nerves work, and thus how brains operate, via a seminal paper in 1952; a wave of electrical potential passes along the axon, which is the long protruberance from the cell body of a neuron that connects it to the next neuron in the circuit; a nerve impulse, the so-called action potential, is caused by the movement across the axon’s surface of sodium and potassium ions; the ions inside the axon are held out of equilibrium with those outside, there being too many potassium ions and too few sodium ions; protein gateways in the cell membrane called ion channels first let sodium ions in then potassium ions out, sweeping an action potential onwards; when the action potential has passed, the ions are pumped back into position for the next excitation; apart from establishing how ions carry electrical signals in nerves, Andrew Huxley (1917-2012) also described how molecular motors enable muscles to shorten and exert force and how electrical activity triggers the contraction of muscle fibres; the first complete connectome – the totality of neural connections – was obtained for the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans in 1986 by Sydney Brenner and colleagues at the renowned MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge; the wiring diagram of this worm’s nervous system was established by tracing images of neurons on electron micrographs by hand

Cell: the word for the biological unit was coined by Robert Hooke (1635-1703), who reconised square structures in cork as looking like monkish cells; Hooke’s Micrographia of 1665, in which he exhibited his drawing of cork, opened the world’s eyes to the small as Galileo did to the large; Samuel Pepys described it as ‘the most ingenious book that ever I read in my life’; there are 220 or so different types of cell in the human body; yet the human body can be regarded as a superorganism, comprising the human host and a microbiota which includes bacteria, archaea, viruses and eukaryotic microbes such as fungi; estimated at about 100 trillion organisms, the microbiota numbers about ten times the cells in the human body, with the greatest concentration in the lower gut

Nucleus: the first clear description of the cell nucleus was provided by microscopist Robert Brown (1773-1858), of Brownian motion fame

Dolphin: dissection by Newton, Halley and Hooke in a London coffee house showed it was a mammal like us with lungs and not a fish; Hooke was on hand in 1680 when a porpoise was dissected, with the same conclusion, by Edward Tyson, father of comparative anatomy

Chimpanzee: Edward Tyson’s dissection of 1699 showed its anatomy is like ours; Jane Goodall reported in 1969 that chimps use tools like we do – in their case twigs for termite collecting

Species: the basic unit of taxonomy was established by John Ray (1627-1705), a clear-sighted botanist and the greatest naturalist of his time; the great Swedish botanist Linnaeus drew heavily on his work to produce the binomial system for naming species that we still use today; Ray came up with the division of plants into monocotyledons and dicotyledons; a contemporary of Linnaeus in Britain was Chelsea gardener Philip Miller (1691-1771), who produced the world’s first dictionary of plants, The Gardener’s Dictionary; the first plant hybrid was that of Thomas Fairchild (1667-1729), in 1716

London Zoo: sited in Regent's Park this is the world’s oldest scientific zoo; it was founded in 1828; by way of a royal precedent, Henry I (reigned 1100-35), fourth son of William I, the Conqueror, is said to have founded a zoo at Woodstock to study animals

London Fish House: the world’s first public aquarium, opened in 1853, was the brainchild of naturalist Philip Gosse

Dinosaur: the word was coined by Richard Owen in 1842, meaning ‘terrible lizard’; Britain is one of the top five sites for dinosaur remains worldwide, possibly because what is now Britain was a land bridge between continents 130 million years ago; the Isle of Wight is ‘Dinosaur Island’, being the richest source of dinosaur remains in Europe; on the mainland the South Coast is the ‘Jurassic Coast’; it was here in 1813 in Jurassic Rock at Lyme Regis that was found the first complete fossilised dinosaur, that of an ichthyosaurus which lived 150 million years ago; the finder was to become a legend among fossil hunters; it was none other than Mary Anning, then 12 years old; she was to find many other dinosaur and other fossils near Lyme Regis, inspiring the tongue-twister, ‘She sells sea shells by the seashore’; Gideon Mantell (1790-1852) achieved the first published identification of a dinosaur, the Iguanodon, in 1825 [see next item]; the world’s first theme park was Crystal Palace Park, which in the mid-1800s featured the first-ever life-sized dinosaur models

William Buckland: gave the first full account of a fossil dinosaur, that of megalosaurus, so named by James Parkinson of eponymous disease fame; Buckland (1784-1856) also discovered in 1823 the first ancient human remains, the Red Lady of Paviland, in a limestone cave on the Gower Peninsular, South Wales; the bones, covered in red ochre, were in fact those of a young male who lived about 29,000 years ago; William Buckland’s death was ascribed to eating the preserved heart of Louis XIV

Deep Time: the recognition of the true – and vast – age of the Earth was a momentous development in human thought: the theory of deep geological time was developed in Britain by James Hutton, 1785, the Father of Geology, and Charles Lyell in the 1830s; geological ages include Cambrian, Precambrian, Ordovician and Silurian – named after Wales and its ancient tribes – and Devonian, after the English county; the first radiodating of rock was by Arthur Holmes (1890-1965), who also championed continental drift [see Geology]

Seismology: the founder of the study of seismic pressure waves from earthquakes is reckoned to be the physicist John Michell (1724-93)[see above, Black holes]

Charles Darwin: 1809-82; proclaimed biological ‘descent with modification’, not fixity of species; evolutionary theory rigorously articulated for first time, greatest-ever revolution in biology; life as mutable, competitive and shaped by environment; evolution by natural selection is one of most powerful ideas of all time; interconnectedness of all life; famously circumnavigated the globe for five years as ship’s geologist on board HMS Beagle, 1831-6; Down House, Kent, was his ‘ship ashore’; his momentous book On the Origin of Species was published in 1859; Darwin was first to argue, correctly we think, that human bipedalism preceded brain enlargement, that all human races derive from single stock and that Africa was the birthplace of man; Darwin abhorred slavery; “Human sympathy is the noblest part of our nature”, he wrote; Darwin reckoned there was “no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties”; Darwin is biology’s presiding genius and he was a jolly nice chap; he speculated that life might have originated in a warm little pond of chemicals and that it had possibly been sparked into existence by a thunderbolt; one of the great revalations of recent biology is that their exist abundant microorganisms in extreme environments, even in rocks and clouds; Darwin guessed at the ubiquity of life, writing in Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, published in 1845, that

'We may well affirm, that every part of the world is habitable! Whether lakes of brine, or those subterranean ones hidden beneath volcanic mountains, warm mineral springs, the wide expanse and depths of the ocean, the upper regions of the atmosphere, and even the surface of perpetual snow, all support organic beings.'

Neo-Darwinian synthesis: J B S Haldane & Ronald Fisher; as well as contributing to the evolutionary synthesis, Fisher laid the foundations for modern statistics and population genetics

Louis Leakey: 1903-72; discovered fossils of Homo habilis in Kenya; this is believed to be the first hominid to use stone tools, 2.6m years ago

Biochemical structures of proteins, vitamins etc: Desmond Bernal, Dorothy Hodgkin(cholesterol, 1937, penicillin, 1945, vitamin B12, 1955, insulin, 1969), William Astbury, John Kendrew, Max Perutz & Lawrence Bragg, mid-20th century

Chromatography: this technique of chemical analysis was invented by A J P Martin & R L M Synge, 1944

DNA double helix: Francis Crick elucidated the twisted ladder structure of DNA, the genetic material, with American James Watson; their 1953 Nature paper on what is reckoned to be the molecule of the 20th century is one of three all-time biological greats, the others being the Darwin-Wallace paper of 1859 on evolution by natural selection and Gregor Mendel’s paper on inheritance of garden pea traits, 1866; the Watson-Crick discovery sparked a revolution in molecular biology; Francis Crick helped to establish the ‘central dogma’ that the DNA code is transcribed into a related nucleic acid, RNA, before the code is finally translated into the proteins of the cell; proteins are stings of amino acids; Francis Crick with Sidney Brenner in 1961 worked out that the RNA coding unit for each of the 20 natural amino acids consisted of three nucleotide bases, which comprise a codon; these bases are also found in DNA, where they are denoted A, T, C and G; the bases on each of the two sugar-phosphate strands of DNA bind to form the rungs of the ladder; the exploitation of genes after the elucidation of the structure of DNA in 1953 and its three-letter code in 1961 is one of greatest developments in human history

Fred Sanger: b1918; sequencing of proteins (he established the amino acid sequence of insulin in the 1950s) & DNA (1977); the development of these methodologies by the unassuming Sanger is of vast significance in the history of science; Sanger sequenced the first DNA-based genome in 1977, that of a bacteriophage, which is a virus that preys on bacteria; the Human Genome Project ‘used essentially the same sequence method introduced by Sanger in 1977...’ (Nature, 470, 187-97, 2011)[see next entry]; for establishing methods of protein & DNA sequencing, Sanger, a double Nobel laureate, was the greatest biologist of the 20th century

Human genome: a draft first became available in 2001, with a near-complete sequence of the human genome's 3 billion letters of DNA code appearing in 2003; Britain obtained 31% of the data and provided the underlying methodology, courtesy of Fred Sanger [see previous entry]; the human genome has ~20,000 distinct genes (i.e. stretches of DNA that manufacture protein-coding messenger RNA), far fewer than was at one time anticipated; this represents little more than 1% of the genome; the suggestion that the rest of the genome was ‘junk’ was itself finally junked in 2012 when the findings were reported of a project called ENCODE, the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements; this started in 2003, taking up where the Human Genome Project left off, ENCODE being an international collaboration whose chief data coordinator is Ewan Birney of the European Bioinformatics Institute in Hinxton near Cambridge; the ENCODE consortium has assigned at least one biochemical function to about 80% of the human genome; this includes 70,000 ‘promoter’ regions – the sites just upstream of genes where proteins bind to control gene expression – and nearly 400,000 ‘enhancer’ regions that regulate expression of distant genes (via RNA); there is vastly more information to be gleaned, however, on the instruction manual that makes humans human

Monoclonal antibodies: Georges Köhler & César Milstein, 1975; ‘hybridoma’ cells as self-perpetuating source of single antibodies; one of most fundamental advances in biotechnology

Ribosome: this component of cells translates genetic information into proteins; the two-part structure of the ribosome, permitting a messenger molecule to pass between, like tape, was partially elucidated by Venkatraman Ramakrishnan in the 1990s, working at the Medical Research Council’s laboratory in Cambridge

Cell cycle: Tim Hunt & Paul Nurse are especially associated with unravelling, in the 1980s and 90s, the universal mechanism by which cells divide

Embryonic stem cells: Martin Evans first isolated and cultivated embryonic stem cells, in 1981, from mice

Dolly the sheep: 1996-2003; first mammal to be cloned (copied) from an adult cell; the technique used was nuclear transplantation; the nucleus of an ovum (egg) was removed and replaced with the nucleus from an adult cell; the resulting hybrid was implanted, after dividing to become a blastocyst, into the womb of a surrogate mother; Dolly was the result - history's most famous sheep

Fingerprinting: ‘Galton-Henry system’ (Francis Galton, 1884, & Edward Henry, 1900; Arches, Loops, Whorls, Composites); version adopted in British India, 1897, then by Scotland Yard (metropolitan police HQ) in 1901; used worldwide

DNA forensic profiling: Alec Jeffreys, 1984; highly individual ‘minisatellites’ in DNA; greatest breakthrough ever in the history of criminology; the world’s first national DNA database was established in Britain in 1995

Facial mapping: crime detection technique to reveal face behind disguise; first used to 'umask' a villain, enabling a conviction to be secured, by Richard Neave of Manchester University. 1989 [Source: Robertson/Shell]

Metric units: more have been named after eminent British scientists than after individuals from any other single nation; e.g. gilbert, watt, kelvin, farad, newton, dalton, joule (James Joule, 1818-1889, law of conservation of energy; related energy and work), gray (Louis Harold Gray, 1905-1965, radiobiology); the earliest concept of a metric system was invented by John Wilkins, the first secretary of the Royal Society, in 1668; oddly, the metric system devised by the French in the late 1700s had been used in nearly identical form in the land of Sumer, 4,500 years previously, according to Livio Stecchini, a professor of metrology (measurement) [see Units of measurement]

Object rendered invisible: paperclip 'disappeared' by use of light-bending calcite crystal, Birmingham University, 2011 [Source: Robertson, personal communication]

Mega projects in science:

'...Harrison's chronometer, Herschel's telescope...Davy's voltaic battery, Babbage's 'computer'...' (Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder, 2008)

Higgs boson: 

'...in July [2012], the world’s largest physics experiment officially discovered the Higgs boson. It took more than 500 trillion proton collisions at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, Europe’s particle-physics lab near Geneva, before physicists could confidently announce that they have seen a new boson with a mass of around 125 gigaelectronvolts. Nearly 50 years ago, theorists including Peter Higgs had proposed that a Universe-filling quantum field imparts mass to some particles. The Higgs boson – the embodiment of that field – is looking disappointingly mundane so far, with no convincing hints of behaviour beyond that predicted by the standard model of particle physics.' (Nature, 492, 324-5, 2012) 

The Higgs is a force particle, a boson, in contrast to matter particles, fermions; number of authors on the Atlas Collaboration paper that announced the discovery of the Higgs: 2,932 [Source: Nature, Ib]; at CERN, the human spirit flew faster and further than ever before

[For medical advances see Health]

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