Category Archives: history of science

Ego and the eponymous element

People are often surprised to hear that it’s perfectly legitimate to discover a new species and name it after yourself.  Legitimate, that is, but not (we pretty much all agree) in good taste. And yet, every now and then, a biologist names a newly-discovered species after him- or herself.*  Sometimes, the self-naming happens by accident (oops, Erhard Rohloff)**; sometimes it happen by subterfuge (nice one, Linnaeus); and sometimes it happens with a fanfare of self-adulation (really, Major Robert Tytler?). It’s not common, but among the millions of species names on record, some careful digging turns up a few unambiguous cases.

But it isn’t just species that get given eponymous names. Comets, mountains, cities… and elements.  Einsteinium, bohrium, curium… but Albert Einstein didn’t name einsteinium, Niels Bohr didn’t name bohrium, and Marie Curie didn’t name curium.  Has anyone ever named an element after themelves?  Well, I’ve recently stumbled across (here) the curious case of gallium. Continue reading

Charles Darwin and photography

I read a fascinating paper about Darwin the other day – and perhaps you’ll be surprised to learn it was by a Shakespearian.  My colleague and friend Randall Martin has just published “Evolutionary Naturalism and Embodied Ecology in Shakespearian Performance (with a Scene from King John)” (Shakespeare Survey 71 [2018]: 147-63). I know, Darwin doesn’t appear in the title, but he does appear in the paper’s first sentence, and he plays a huge role in Martin’s argument (that evolved emotions shared by humans and animals and communicated in facial and body gestures make theatre possible, that Shakespeare exploited this observed knowledge masterfully, and that Darwin used Shakespearian examples to illustrate his own observations).

Martin’s paper covers a lot of ground, but as an evolutionary ecologist I was captivated by the material about Darwin’s use of photographic “data” in his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (published in 1872, the year after The Descent of Man; full text here).  I knew that the development of photography happened during Charles Darwin’s lifetime – after all, there are several famous photographs of Darwin. Continue reading

The unluckiest naturalist ever

Image: Ambrose Palisot de Beauvois (public domain).

Writing my forthcoming book has taken me down a lot of rabbitholes.  Many of them have involved the history of science, and especially, the history of natural history.  I’ve learned about naturalists who were heroic and naturalists who were despicable; naturalists who were centuries ahead of their times and naturalists stubbornly stuck in the past; naturalists who had every privilege and naturalists who struggled even to feed themselves, let alone to do science.  But no naturalist I’ve encountered was as extraordinarily unlucky as Ambroise Marie François Joseph Palisot, Baron de Beauvois. Continue reading