18th century Art on Science: Joseph Wright’s “An Experiment on a Bird in an Airpump”


From Wikimedia Commons

Unlike his self-explanatory “Alchemist discovering phosphorus,” another painting of Joseph Wright of Derby, “An Experiment on a Bird in an Airpump” (right) is an enigma for a 21st-century viewer. Who are people surrounding the table? Why is the parrot in a glass bowl?

What is an air pump?

I don’t think I need to convince you that air has pressure and you can remove air from a vessel leaving a vacuum – or more likely thin gas – inside. But for people in pre-scientific time air was something indivisible like other elements – fire, earth, and water.

The air pump, which can suck the air out of a vessel, was invented by Otto von Guericke in 1650. One of the lucky first possessors of the air pump was “the first modern chemist” Robert Boyle. You may remember him from Boyle’s Law. Boyle conducted experiments with the pump and published a book about it in 1660. One of the experiments describes air removal effect on a bird:

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20th Century Art on Science: Gustav Klimt on Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence


the_kiss_-_gustav_klimt_-_google_cultural_instituteThe Kiss (on the right) is one of the most frequent pictures in student dorm rooms. Female students that is. The gold, the flowers, gently undulating figure of a red-haired and pink woman being embraced and kissed by an angular and darker man what’s not to like?

But the early 20th century Austrian painter Gustav Klimt wasn’t always a crowdpleaser. In 1899 he was commissioned three paintings for the ceiling of the University of Vienna’s Great Hall. But Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence caused an uproar of university establishment and were never displayed. They were later looted by Nazis and destroyed by the fire in 1945, so we have only a fragment in colour and black-and-white reproductions of the rest.

But even from the ghost of the paintings we can see that Klimt combined his strands of his cash-cow ornate female portraits with his post-Great Hall allegorical groups, as in “award-winning” Death and Life. (If you ever in Vienna, do visit Leopold Museum for Klimt’s works if nothing else. Death and Life is mesmerizing, it’s 2m x 2m but feels like five times that.)

Why were his Great Hall paintings called ‘pornography’ and ‘perverted excess”? Not because the educated people at the end of the 19th century didn’t see nude figures on paintings. On the contrary, classical paintings of this period were full of nudes – relaxing in languorous poses, plump and pink. Klimt’s nudes are emasculated, twisted – and have visible pubic hair and genitals, hence  pornography accusation. They also don’t suffer heroically as the heroes of classical paintings do, but in despair, viscerally – “in excess”.

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H.G. Wells on 19th century Science

First edition cover. Image by Heinemann, via Wikimedia Commons.

I recently re-read The island of Dr. Moreau as a part of Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World course. I’ve read it in a Russian translation as a child, but the only thing I remembered was men made from beasts.  30 years later I had different thoughts and discovered some interesting things about the writer.

Let’s look at the scientists of the novel. It’s narrated by a gentleman of leisure, Prendrick, rescued from a shipwreck by a ship, which apart from the crew, carries some wild animals and a doctor, Montgomery. Montgomery says that he was a medical student in London:

“Sixteen years being bullied by nurses and schoolmasters at their own sweet will; grinding hard at medicine, bad food, shabby lodgings, shabby clothes, shabby vice, a blunder,—I didn’t know any better,—and hustled off to this beastly island”.

And here lies my personal discovery. I think that Montgomery modelled on the H. G. Wells himself. Wells did study in a private school, quite a bad one. He never was a medical student, but  he studied biology under  the famous evolutionist Thomas Huxley, and a biologist is often a medical doctor thwarted in his/her ambition.

After this Wells studied in Royal College of Science Association new school until 1887.  In his Experiment in Autobiography, Wells says about this period that he was constantly  hungry.

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18th Century Art on Science: Joseph Wright’s “Alchemist discovering phosphorus”

Image from Wikimedia Commons

The picture, oil on canvas, by Joseph Wright of Derby (1734 – 1797), first  exhibited in 1771 with the original full title of “The Alchymist, in Search of    the Philosopher’s Stone, discovers Phosphorus, and prays for the successful  conclusion of his operation, as was the custom of the ancient chymical  astrologers” (derbymuseums.org, 2014).

Joseph Wright was an English landscape and portrait painter, who was “the  first professional painter to express the spirit of the Industrial Revolution”.

 Historical Background

Just as astrology – study of cosmic objects alleged influence on human life –  was a forerunner of astronomy, alchemy was a predecessor of chemistry.  Alchemy studied ways to obtain a magical substance, Philosopher’s Stone,  which was supposed to be a source of eternal youth and, as a side effect,  converted common, cheap metals such as lead to gold.

“Alchemist discovering phosphorus” is the Wright’s depiction of a real event.  In 1669 German alchemist Henig Brand after collecting and evaporating  human urine discovered a waxy substance emitting white light. Later,  analysis has shown that the substance was a chemical element, phosphorus.

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Elementary, S1E24, “Heroine”

A solitary bee, Anthidium florentinum

A solitary bee, Anthidium florentinum (Picture by Alvesgaspar, Wikimedia commons)

The first season ends on a sentimental note. Sherlock invites Watson on the roof where he keeps his hives. He tells her that he had managed crossing the rare solitary bee he obtained as a payment in one of the cases (S1E17, “Possibility Two” ?) to the honey bee. The hybrid is a new species, which he is going to name after Watson – E. watsonii.

I get the metaphor: Sherlock = solitary bee, honey bee = humanity and Watson had helped Holmes to return from his heroin addiction. But the highly unlikely hybrid of two separate  genuses (a taxon higher than species) is not a new species . “E. watsonii” can be sterile, e.g. unable to reproduce as a cross-genuses horse x donkey hybrid – mule. And even if it is fertile, a species should be stable during tens of years and in a natural habitat.

So sorry, Watson, I don’t think you’ll have a species named after you.

Elementary, S1E21, “A Landmark Story”

Transmission electron micrograph of rubella virus.

Transmission electron micrograph of rubella virus. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The villain of the day said:

…I constructed an antibiotic resistant rubella strain in the lab.

Rubella of “mumps, measles and rubella vaccine” fame is a virus.

Antibiotics do not work on viruses, so it is impossible – and useless – to engineer a resistant strain.

Related articles:

Elementary, S1E17, “Possibility Two”

English: Very low mag. Image: Cerebral amyloid...

Cross-section of dye-stained CAA tissue. Blue blobs – cells, brown – insoluble protein deposits (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wikipedia’s plot summary:

 Holmes investigates when a wealthy philanthropist believes he was intentionally infected with an incurable illness — cerebral amyloid angiopathy (CAA); Holmes sends Joan to a suspicious dry cleaners to teach her deductive skills.

CAA  is the result of an insoluble protein accumulating in the  brain cells. In the episode  this is caused by a drug-like molecule, which “specifically targets the gene”, which is impossible. If they’d only changed “gene” to the protein itself, it would have been much  more believable.

Secondly, the detective receives the drug formula as a picture to his mobile and spends a night “solving the formula, determining where carbon, oxygen and nitrogen atoms go “. The formula on the screen briefly, and looks complete – anybody with a bit of chemistry training,  for example his sidekick Joan Watson, would have told him the formula.

What I did like was the idea that blood test can be faked by mixing a “DNA-less” blood-like substance (for example, artificial plasma and anybody’s red blood cells – they don’t contain nucleus = DNA) with DNA synthesised to match a suspect 11 genetic markers (bits of his DNA). As nobody determines sequence of the whole length DNA, relying on the markers match, I cannot find a fault with the idea.