Tag Archives: history of science

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

What is science’s “Kokomo”?

Image: The Beach Boys (2012 reunion), © Louise Palanker via flickr.com CC BY-SA 2.0

It came on the radio again the other day: “Kokomo”*.  It’s a fundamentally and phenomenally stupid song, and yet it’s so perfectly executed that you can’t help singing along a little, even knowing that you’ll hate yourself for it later.  Even knowing that you’re hating yourself right now while you’re still singing, but you still can’t stop.  That such a stupid, stupid song can still grab you and not let go, and can still blight the airwaves 30 years after its release, is a testament to the song writing craftsmanship of its authors**  and to the performance craftsmanship of the Beach Boys.  It’s just astonishing how good “Kokomo” can be, while simultaneously being so very, very bad***.

So what is science’s Kokomo?  What scientific idea is fundamentally stupid, yet persists (or persisted for a very long time) anyway because it’s been argued with craftsmanship and polish enough to persuade? Continue reading

Wonderful Latin names: Spurlingia darwini

Photo: Spurlingia forsteriana, from the collection of the Rijksmuseum van Natuurlijke Historie, Leiden (photo released to public domain).  No photos of S. darwini appear to be online.

“How many species have been named for Charles Darwin?”, I wondered a couple of hours ago, before tumbling down an internet rabbithole looking for the answer.  The answer, as I’m sure you’d guess, is a lot.  This paper lists about 260 animal taxa named for Darwin (I’m excluding the ones named after places that had in their turn been named after Darwin).  But there are plenty of plants, too, so the best answer I can find to my question is the maddeningly imprecise “hundreds”. Continue reading

Painting of Hennig Brand discovering phosphorus

Open science, phosphorus, and economic impact

Image: The Alchymist, In Search of the Philosopher’s Stone (1771), by Joseph Wright, illustrating Hennig Brand’s discovery of phosphorus. Collection of The Derby Museum and Art Gallery.

Warning: long-ish. If you like, skip the middle section (history of the discovery of phosphorus) or skip the opening and conclusion (open science vs. commercialization). It’s kind of two posts in one.

 

Last week I was working on a grant proposal, to an agency called the New Brunswick Innovation Foundation.  I was feeling a bit soiled, since NBIF is unabashedly about industrial innovation and commercialization, and I’ve always fancied myself a basic/pure/curiosity-driven scientist*.  A move into more applied work (mostly forestry-related) is new for me.  I really struggled to write the section about how the intellectual property generated by my proposal would be commercialized – partly because I just don’t have any interest in doing so, and partly because (as a consequence) I really don’t know how.

One thing was obvious, though: Continue reading