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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Farewell to science


By The British Library, via Wikimedia Commons

When I was twelve, I have invented my own hierarchy of professions in  the modern society. At the top there were scientists who moved the rest of humanity per aspera ad astra. On the lower rung were doctors and teachers. The former because they look after health of everybody including the scientists, the latter  because they trained scientists and everyone else. The rest of humanity which consisted of engineers, workers and peasants, merged into a useful, but not individually identifiable masses.

The Soviet society was technocratic so there was a  system to encourage people to be interested in science. On TV there were programes like ” In the world of animals”, and most importantly – “Obvious – unbelievable” about the scientific discoveries. The library  had popular science books, in which  science was  presented as accumulation of fun facts.  When I was in high school  my parents – a teacher and a medical doctor – subscribed for me to the magazine “Science and Life.” Finally, in our home library beside 12 volumes of pupil’s Encyclopedia  we had a “little red book of a budding scientist” – “Monday Begins on Saturday” by Strugatsky brothers, where scientists have been  clever and interesting,  their life useful and fun.

School subject competitions  (Olympiads, something like spelling bees but in Biology, Chemistry etc. starting from the school level up to the level of whole USSR) provided me a window into a different life, where people thought not only about clothes and food, and the currency in the conversation was not admiration of  boy bands  and  makeup tips, but  opinions about  Dostoevsky and the Kalahari Desert. And after adrenaline  injection with the victory at the Olympics awards in the form of honor and respect in school and at home. Interest in science gave a different  the provincial bell-jar claustrophobic self-identity, and the goal – to move to a larger city, as well as a means of achieving it.

The girl who won the first place at the Republican Biology Olympiad (1995) enrolled in a medical school. I (6th place, II degree diploma) brushed off such an option, as  I was firmly convinced that MD is secondary to PhD and the way to science was via

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Writer Audrey Niffenegger On Art, Religion and Science

       Audrey Niffenegger                      (By Michael Strong, [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons)

I discovered Manchester Literature Festival via a newspaper. From the smorgdasboard of talks, I chose to meet two writers working in my favourite genre of “literary science fiction” – Audrey Niffenegger and David Mitchell.

I read only the first book of Audrey Niffenegger, “Time Traveler’s Wife”, which became a bestseller in 2003. Niffenegger – one of the few modern writers who represent the sub-genre of “science fiction with a human face”. It describes mainly not technology of the futur,e but mostly imagines how  recognisably modern people behave in unusual circumstances. Among other examples of this genre are “Solaris” by  Lem,  “The Left Hand of Darkness” by Le Guin, and “Shards of Honor” by Bujold. “Time Traveler’s Wife” was somewhat sentimental, but this was offset by realistic details and – this always pleases my heart – plausible biology underlying “The Time Traveler’s syndrome.”

Looking at the ticket, I saw that the meeting with Niffeneger  has a title “Gaia Sermon on Contemporary Issues” and was to be held in the  Manchester Cathedral.

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A Letter to Unknown Soldier: http://www.1418now.org.uk/letter/

War memorial Paddington Station in memory of over 3000 Great Western Railways employees killed in both world wars (By Charles Sergeant Jagger, opened in 1922). Note the informality – open military coat on the shoulders, unbuttoned, a scarf. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

When I came to Britain and started learning about British culture in situ, I was astonished by the place The World War I (WWI) had in it. It was a yardstick, a dark  but indelible part of national identity. Just like World War II was for Soviet Union.

My eventual explanation for why for people from Eastern Europe WWI was just another historical war, like Napoleonic and for the British – The War has two arguments. Once I waited in a government building, I think it was a post office. It had a plaque on the wall listing members of the same organisation who died in First and Second World Wars. The list of WWI was five times longer. Also, while the Russian Empire had two revolutions caused by WWI, which totally eclipsed the War and the successor government forced to sign an agreement with Germans, Great Britain won.

2014  is 100 years since The War started and the British Government prepared a number of activities to “celebrate” it (the word had caused some controversy, you cannot celebrate a begin of war some argued, and I agree with them, but the verb stuck). This trickled down to my local library where I picked up a leaflet advertising the writing workshop.

We were going to write a Letter to Unknown Soldier depicted as a sculpture at the Paddington Station in London. The letters are  on line for a year and then they will be preserved in the National Archive – forever. I would be highly ironic if my letter survives longer than any other contribution to culture: genetic, scientific or journalistic.

The Letter to an Unknown Soldier is open to submissions until 11p.m. (BST) on the night of 04 August 2014. 

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Expertise in Digital Age – How to Recognize Your Experts

In a 2014 article Teo Merz of Daily Telegraph quotes several studies about multiple benefits of red wine consumption.  A couple of months later Lizzie Dearden of  The Independent writes that  “one large glass of red wine a night is enough to damage health, say scientists”.

It seems that majority of news articles today use one pattern. They start with some author’s  text followed by two or three  quotes from “experts”.  Using expert opinions is more convincing than just a journalist’s explanations of the same topic and  these opinions represent a different type of voice than“a random person from the street”. More convincing until you – very easily – find an opposite opinion, confirmed by a different expert.

How do you decide who to believe?

In the olden times of few newspapers and fewer TV channels it was easy, because the experts were few and pre-approved by media. Currently cable TV and Internet experts come in all shapes and varieties, from Nobel Prize Winners to anonymous but respected individuals in a niche on-line community.

The XX century  expert had two characteristics: a specialised education – often a postgraduate degree – and many years of practice in the chosen field, which usually resulted in a  position in  a relevant institution, for example a head of department or a professor. These days you can get a PhD diploma and become a member of an impressive sounding  Academy of Sciences on-line. These diplomas  are impressive until you realise that you can buy them with just a hundred dollars. On the other hand, as the universities start resembling supermarkets and rely on highly qualified but instantly replaceable stuff on temporary contracts, an “independent” (currently unemployed) scientist can be a true authority.

And even experts with impeccable credentials sometimes express strange opinions. Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling put a lot of time into advocating vitamin C as a cure for viral infections, and although there is a consensus in the biomedical community that this is not the case, vitamin C myth remains a health industry staple. More recently, another Nobel Prize winner, James Watson of “Watson and Crick DNA structure” fame caused a lot of controversy, when he openly supported racial inequality idea.

I think that the first rule of expert opinion vetting would be not to believe blindly to any claim in mass-media. The news outlets usually exaggerate  importance of news, citing experts selectively. The more groundbreaking the claim is, the less likely it is 100% true. So the immediate “cure for cancer” probably means a possibility of a drug for a very specific cancer type in five to ten years.

Secondly, even a cursory check of the expert credentials will tell you how serious you should take expert’s claims. If you never heard of a University or Academy, nobody guarantees quality of the expert. Treat these experts as an average person, who may be right or wrong. Don’t believe anything if this contradicts common sense: man can survive for a long time exclusively on cabbage, but he will definitely not be a happy person.

And lastly, even if the expert’s credentials are irreproachable, make sure that he did not stray beyond his field of expertise. A chemist’s opinion on health issues are not more valuable than a molecular biologist’s opinion on brain development, or your opinion on any topic beyond your professional  or  hobby  topic.

But you have to become an expert at least in one thing: in evaluating experts.

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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Jointly but not peacefully

Image representing Wikipedia as depicted in Cr...

As “Star Trek” is not only a spanning decades TV series and movies, but is also a subculture of “trekkies”, Wikipedia is not only a “free online encyclopedia, which can be edited by anyone”, but a subculture.  There are people, who always go beyond an occasional spelling mistake correction, and often spend all their free – and some work – time editing, administrating, reverting vandalism and quarreling with outsiders and each other in Wikipedia. These people are called “wikipedians” and I am one of them.

People love researching other people, this is whole premise of anthropology. Online communities allow to research alien cultures without the inconvenience of travelling into remote locations, eating strange food and being in any danger from unfriendly locals. No wonder that wikipedians proved to be more fascinating object of study than the artifact  created by them. A brief search in PLoS One shows one paper about Wikipedia semantics  and one about   language complexity and 5 about the Wikipedia community.

However, reducing complex systems such as communities to a simple metric is fraught with danger of missing the point. Let us consider the recent study about Wikipedia community interaction: Jointly They Edit: Examining the Impact of Community Identification on Political Interaction in Wikipedia  by J. J.Neff et al.  The authors used the wikipedia user pages to determine political affiliation of the users and then assessed their interactions with each other. They came to some conclusions, which ring true to me both as a wikipedian and a scientist:

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