The lesser-spotted physicist

The history of the Royal Society is full of famous men and women of science, but every so often we discover a significant but obscure figure deep in the archives. These are often some of the most interesting people, and were better recognised by their contemporaries than we have remembered.

One such figure is Oliver Heaviside (1850-1925). Who? He became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1891, specialising in electrical theory. His interest was sparked – pun intended – when he went to work with his uncle, Charles Wheatstone (1802-1875), co-inventor in 1837 of the first commercial telegraph. Telegraphy involved a code-system which was used to transmit a message between two distant sites, and its commercial expansion led to a series of national projects to lay lines across Britain, as well as attempts to connect Britain with North America and further afield. Communication was transformed, and it was through this new technology that Heaviside developed his passion for electrical physics.

 

Heaviside

Oliver Heaviside, ca. 1900 (Smithsonian Libraries public domain image)

 

Heaviside’s life has been of interest to some historians of science, and physicists might recognise his name, but he rarely comes up in a general history of the Royal Society. He was born in London into a modest family; his father was a wood engraver. After grammar school, where Heaviside excelled in natural history, higher education was not financially feasible. The young Oliver was sent to work with his brother in the north of England on the telegraph. In 1873 he sent the Philosophical Magazine a paper that was praised by physicists William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) and James Clerk Maxwell, eminent figures at the Royal Society and experts on electrical physics. After just seven working years, Heaviside decided to quit and devote all of his time to the study of electrical theory, never again seeking full-time employment. He lived with his parents in London, and later in Devon above his brother’s music shop, spending the last few months of his life in a retirement home.

He published many articles throughout his life, mainly in the monthly Philosophical Magazine and the weekly Electrician, and it was through these papers that his work became recognised by other physicists in the Society, leading to his election to the Fellowship. It was only after this date that Heaviside published with the Royal Society – five papers in Proceedings and one in the Philosophical Transactions, all in the 1890s. Before this date he did not have the necessary connections to access the Society: if an author was not a Fellow they had to get the support of a Fellow to even submit a paper.

Even after his election, however, it was far from plain sailing for Heaviside at the Society. In June 1891, now a Fellow, Heaviside submitted a paper on the ‘Force, Stresses, and Fluxes of Energy in the Electromagnetic Field’. An abstract was published in Proceedings on 18 June 1891 on the same day the paper was read to the Society (Proceedings 1891 vol. 50 302-307 126-129), but the full paper was not passed by Council for printing in the Philosophical Transactions until October 1892, a delay of fully sixteen months from its submission. At this point the paper was available as a ‘separate copy’, which Heaviside could circulate among his contemporaries and interested readers could purchase from booksellers; the paper only appeared in the bound Transactions volume in 1892.

A delay between submission and printing was not unusual in the nineteenth century, in fact it was normal for an author to have to wait several months for a paper to pass through the refereeing process at the Society. This was not the cause of the delay to Heaviside’s paper; rather, he held up the printing of his paper himself due to his dissatisfaction with the printer’s typesetting of the copious mathematical formulae in the first copy he received. He was adamant that a better attempt be made, which he related to the Secretary of the Society John William Strutt (Lord Rayleigh): ‘the paper is hard enough to read without the unnecessary difficulty of unsuitable type, and I thought something must be done’ (MM/17/110).

Not only did such revisions to papers cause delay, but they were also expensive for the Society. Despite this, the Assistant Secretary appeased Heaviside, stating that Harrisons, the Society’s printer, ‘must do what they can to meet his wishes about the type’ (NLB/5/1076). Heaviside drew on his experience of publishing in the Philosophical Magazine and the Electrician to suggest the correct type to use. This is significant since the Society’s printing, until the work passed to Harrisons in 1877, had been done by Taylor and Francis, a company known for skilled typesetting of scientific papers. After months of to-ing and fro-ing between the Society, Heaviside and Harrisons, the Assistant Secretary believed an end was in sight: ‘we have got as near as we can to your [Heaviside’s] pattern’ (NLB/5/1166). In reality, Heaviside was still unhappy. The Society was now very anxious to get the paper out, but another four months passed before it was finally approved by Heaviside.

Heaviside never published another paper in the Philosophical Transactions. And even though he published several short papers in the Proceedings, when he attempted to publish here in 1894 he faced opposition from the referee, and was given the option to “withdraw” the paper: ‘I should, with much reluctance, prefer to withdraw it’ (rather than have it fester in the ‘archives’ of the Society where all unpublished papers resided) (RR/12/136).

Heaviside seemed to maintain his eccentricities in his personal life too. Without a job, he was exceedingly poor, only surviving on a small pension acquired for him by some Royal Society Fellows, which he was reluctant to accept. His work, however, was revered by other physicists at the Society, who were all formally educated and most in full-time academic positions. While his skill and intellect conceivably approached the likes of James Clerk Maxwell (whose theories he developed), his fame never did. The Royal Society’s archives may hold no portrait of Heaviside, but they do provide insight into the scientific merits of a Fellow who remained (possibly out of choice) on the margins of the scientific elite.

 

Politics in academic publishing: past to present

[This post by Anna Gielas first appeared on TheStudentBlog at PLOS on 14 June 2016]

“Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist”. This is the title of a Guardian opinion piece from 2011– and it is hardly the strongest critique of the academic publishing industry. Academic publishing tends to stir up controversy within scholarly and scientific communities. Sometimes it provokes individuals, like graduate student Alexandra Elbakyan, to take matters into their own hands. Elbakyan created Sci-Hub, a database of pirated academic articles, and is now facing charges for copyright infringement.

This lawsuit has fueled more discussion about how to change and improve upon the current publishing system. An example of a common argument from critics is that the current publishing system pressures academics into hastily publishing novel, attention-garnering studies instead of working toward lasting contributions to scientific and scholarly knowledge. Misconduct such as data falsification is but one of the worrying consequences of the ‘publish or perish’ climate in modern research. In turn, universities and libraries face financial barriers that stem from expensive publishing costs and high subscription rates.

Proponents of the status quo maintain that traditional academic publishers such as Elsevier, Springer,Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, and Taylor & Francis shield academics from “predatory” journals whose numbers have increased throughout the last years. The phrase “predatory” refers to publishers that charge the scientists expensive fees to publish their research in a particular journal without providing the usual services such as peer review and extensive editing services, among other things.

Coming together to examine (overlooked) challenges in publishing

Recently, an interdisciplinary group of scholars, publishing executives, and education researchers convened at the Royal Society of London to look beyond the common critiques of academic publishing and also examine lesser-known issues. The group discussed past and present structures of scholarly publishing—as well as their roots and broader implications, and I was able to attend the event.

“The Politics of Academic Publishing, 1950-2016” workshop was organized by the ‘Publishing the Philosophical Transactions’ project at the University of St. Andrews, and was led by Aileen Fyfe, Camilla Mørk Røstvik and Noah Moxham. The workshop’s comprehensive review of the history of academic publishing allowed the group to take a step back and gain a sense of how academic publishing has changed in the last six decades. The present situation became a point of reference for the participants to ask what academic publishing has gained and lost over the last 66 years.

The spread of academic publishing over time

Jack Meadows (Loughborough University) kicked off proceedings by placing the expansion of learned publishing in the 1950s in the context of the scientific race between the East and West. He used thePergamon Press as an example of how the global race for scientific innovation fueled publishing. Twelve years after its commencement in 1948, the Oxford-based publisher hosted 40 academic journals. Ten years later, Pergamon Press had expanded even further to include 150 .

Stefan Collini (Cambridge University) examined academic publishing in the 1960s and 1970s, stating: “Universities were much less in the business of justifying themselves to the self-appointed representatives of the public interest, and scholarship was seen as something that chiefly concerned other scholars.” Collini mentioned well-respected academics from the 1960s and 1970s who published their first monograph years after they were tenured and managed to gain renown despite having less than a handful of journal articles to their name. This presents a stark contrast to today’s situation in which article publications are a crucial means for furthering and sustaining one’s career.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the academic journal still struggled to make a profit. Publishers had to rely on other ways to finance their academic activities—such as the textbook market in former African colonies, as Caroline Davis (Oxford International Centre for Publishing Studies) explained. “In the book trade – both in Britain and in many of its former colonies – the structures and hierarchies of imperialism long survived the demise of colonial rule itself,” said Davis. “After decolonization, British academic publishers continued to regard book markets in former colonies as their prerogative.”

Davis pointed out that British publishers have undermined the establishment of African ones. “Some people view this as a reason for today’s South-North-gap in academic publishing,” she concluded. The lack of highly regarded African journals is just one of the current challenges in academic publishing that tends to be overlooked, but was brought up by the interdisciplinary group.

Academics encounter gender-based hurdles to publishing

Kelly Coate (Director of King’s Learning Institute) turned the audience’s attention to another problem, namely the obstacles that female academics face in the academic publishing world. “Women encounter notably more implicit and explicit biases (to publishing),” Coate said. She said male academics, for example, tend to cite each other—and much less their female peers.

Camilla Mørk Røstvik, who studies the editorial archives of the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions, reported that female researchers in the 1950s faced similar prejudices toward their work. “The first names of male authors were usually initialed. But articles written by female researchers included the women’s full first names, suggesting essential differences in studies conducted by women and men,” Mørk Røstvik said.

Despite facing gender-based prejudices, female scientists acted as peer reviewers throughout the 1950s. While doing so, “they were generally – and knowingly – addressed as “Sir””, Mørk Røstvik added.

Though publishing has improved for female scientists since the 1950s, decades of gender bias and inequality remain deeply ingrained in the infrastructure of academic publishing. “Women themselves are influenced by implicit biases—which make them just as likely as men to make biased judgments that favor their male peers,” Coate said.

How to improve academic publishing

What can be done to address systemic gender disparities in academic publishing? Workshop participants discussed the double- and single-blind models of peer review as one of the means to actively counter the problem. The French sociologist Didier Torny (Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique) explained that these reviewing strategies have been discussed and shaped from the 1950s onward. But, Torny added, the terms were adapted from the mid-1980s clinical trials vocabulary.

“If you see peer-review as making an article better, then retractions are terrible and demonstrate considerable problems with the system of reviewing,” Torny said, suggesting that post-publication peer review could be a better, more promising approach. “Readers become a community which works together to steer findings in the right direction—the audience is actively contributing to the production of knowledge.”

Sue Clegg (Higher Education Research at Leeds Metropolitan University) was also highly critical of the current peer review model. “This practice is inclined towards conservatism,” she said. “Criteria for journal inclusion are far from transparent—they are oftentimes very murky.”

Clegg also brought up gender biases and cautioned her audience to pay closer attention to questions of: (1) Who is most likely to become a peer-reviewer? (2) Who is most likely to be admitted to journal boards? Clegg agreed with Torny, and emphasized: “We should consider how we can reconfigure peer-review as a more open-community practice.”

Throughout the workshop one topic resurfaced several times: disciplinary differences. The participants agreed that journals play different roles in different fields. For example, while physicists make intense use of academic journals, scholars of economics more commonly publish working papers. In some fields, journal authors have to pay word-fee, while in others they do not. Therefore, initiatives to improve academic publishing should consider these disciplinary differences.

I felt this workshop was beneficial in that it looked beyond the usual catalogue of grievances and challenges in publishing. By applying a historical lens, the panelists were able to reflect new developments in academic publishing comparatively—and more critically. The lessons from history—as well as the disciplinary differences in academic publishing—will be key elements of the position paper that is currently being developed by the St. Andrews team.

Anna Gielas is a PhD Student in History of Science and Science Communication at the University of St Andrews

Aileen Fyfe was recently interviewed on the PLOScast about the history of scientific publishing.

Mocking your elders

Recently I found myself trawling through the minute-books of the Royal Society’s Committee of Papers. This was the body responsible for screening the papers read to the Society’s meetings and selecting those of suitable quality for publication in the Philosophical Transactions.

I was trying to reconstruct the historical rejection rate between 1780 and 1830 (about 40%, for anyone who’s interested). Working through a long list of papers in this way has an unusually dizzying time-telescoping effect, as fifty years’ worth of scientific activity is catalogued in a single volume, and a remarkable number of famous names in the history of science make their first published appearances without fanfare – Humphry Davy with a paper on Galvanic combinations, for instance, among many others.

One name I wasn’t particularly expecting to encounter in the annals of the Royal Society at this time was that of Henry Brougham. Brougham is known mainly for his legal and literary career – born and educated in Scotland, he helped found the Edinburgh Review, one of the leading literary periodicals of the nineteenth century, and became Lord Chancellor, the head of the legal profession in England. In fact there are several Lord Chancellors who had close associations with the Royal Society: Sir John Somers was President of the Society in the 1690s; William Cowper and Thomas Parker were both eighteenth-century Fellows, and Parker’s son George also became President; and, of course, the Society’s founding inspiration, Francis Bacon. It turns out, however, that Brougham has an unusual claim to distinction with respect to the Society. We think he may have been the youngest person ever to contribute a paper to the Philosophical Transactions.

 

Engraving of Henry Peter Brougham, Baron Brougham and Vaux, by W Bosley. Published by Claudet, London 1849.

 

Brougham’s paper was entitled ‘Experiments and Observations on the Inflection, Reflection and Colours of Light’, and was read to the Society on 29 January 1796. At that time Brougham was 17 years and 133 days old (he was born on 19 September 1778). His paper was considered for publication in the Transactions on 10 March 1796 and apparently withdrawn (the meeting at which it was considered also featured a paper by Caroline Herschel, the first woman to have a paper published in Transactions under her own name). Unusually, Brougham’s paper was then brought before the Committee again a couple of months later, and this time it was approved for printing.

The exact significance of the sequence of events is hard to parse – a paper’s being withdrawn usually signalled either the author’s dissatisfaction with some aspect of it, or the exertion of pressure upon the author by the Society, which had no intention of printing the paper but did not wish to have to reject it outright. In either event the matter usually rested there, and the slightly tangled path of Brougham’s paper to print may have had to do with the Society’s consciousness of his extreme youth. We would be very curious to hear if any readers of this blog happen to know of any younger authors finding their way into the Transactions. On the subject of child prodigies, incidentally, the Transactions also contains a paper by Daines Barrington about the young Mozart, whom Barrington saw performing on his visit to London in 1764, then aged 8.

Brougham’s connection with the Society didn’t end there. Though he did not pursue a career in science, he was elected to the Society (with the influence of the President, Joseph Banks, in 1802). This was the same year Brougham helped found the Edinburgh Review, and his letter soliciting Banks’s assistance in his election to the Society enclosed a copy of the first issue.

Banks was not particularly pleased with what he found. The new periodical included a scathing review of the Journal of Friedrich Hornemann’s Travels. Banks was a founding member of the African Association, which encouraged and sponsored several expeditions of exploration in Africa, including those of Mungo Park and Hornemann himself. Hornemann’s journal had been sent back to England from Tripoli in 1799 and he himself set off for a further expedition to the interior; in 1802 his fate was unknown and nothing had been heard from him in three years. Banks was plainly disappointed by the tenor of the review; his letter to Brougham does not survive, but its general import is plainly apparent from Brougham’s reply. Brougham told Banks that he heartily agreed with the substance of Banks’s complaint, and had put the same case to the editors:

I communicated your opinion on the review of Horneman’s Journal to the author and the other Critics who compose our sanguinary tribunal. – I also added my own in the same terms – they all agreed, that, if the slightest disrespect was meant to the celebrated body [the African Association] under whose patronage Mr Horneman pursues his adventures, the article deserved suppression. – The author himself declared that such a thought never entered his head, – and that he levelled his Criticism not at all against the African Association, but against the secretary at whom he has conceived some ill will; I know not upon what grounds for he is perfectly unknown both to that Gentleman and to the other members.

Brougham laid the tone of concerned agreement on thick: ‘I urged the apparent tendency of some passages to evince a disrespect towards the Society’, remarking to the author ‘that the world never draws the distinction between an attack levelled at a public body and one directed against its office-bearers. – I added that any such attack from the E. review must be absurd in the extreme, and tend only to draw the public odium and contempt upon the review.’ He stressed, however, that this had proved futile: the author ‘persisted in his plan of criticism, refusing to modify the article in the 2nd edition’ (the first issue of the Edinburgh Review, he proudly reported, had sold out within five days).

The whole letter was, almost needless to add at this point, an elaborate fiction, since the author was probably Brougham himself. One can’t help feeling a little sorry for Banks in this situation, being made game of by a man who was fishing for his support for election into the Society. At the same time it’s hard not to admire the chutzpah of Brougham, a cocky 24-year-old running rings around a long-serving President of the Royal Society with the same aplomb that had led him to communicate original research in optics to the Society while still a teenager.

 

A bad break in the Lakes

If you’re a keen climber or mountaineer, you have something in common with several Fellows of the Royal Society.

I’m more of a stroll-up-a-hill type, but my interest in the history of climbing in Britain was piqued recently when I found a series of letters in the Society’s archives. The letters concerned one Fellow’s 1942 climbing adventure in the Lake District, and the catastrophic events that ensued for him and his wife.

Climbing was a pursuit of earlier Fellows of the Society too. The physicist John Tyndall (1820-93) became a pioneering mountaineer after he first visited the Alps in 1856 to research glacial motion. The growing popularity of mountaineering at this time has been attributed to a number of factors, including transport innovations across Europe that allowed freer movement between town and countryside, and romantic sensibilities about masculinity and exploration. But for Tyndall and many of his contemporaries in the physical sciences, it was also a way to observe in the field the extremes of nature that informed their research in the laboratory. Tyndall went on to conquer the Weisshorn in the Swiss Alps in 1861, and led one of the early teams to the summit of the Matterhorn in 1868. He was able to combine his love of climbing with his study of the origin and continued existence of glaciers; during his lifetime he published around twenty papers in the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions on this and other topics.

 

Portrait of John Tyndall, by John McClure Hamilton, 1893-94 © The Royal Society

 

As climbing became popular in the mid to late nineteenth century, private clubs formed to allow climbers to socialise and pursue their hobby together. The Alpine Club was the first mountaineering club in the world, formed in 1857 in London; Tyndall became a member in 1858. Climbing clubs in the nineteenth century were attended mainly by middle- and upper-class men who had sufficient money and leisure time on their hands. Women were generally not admitted: the Alpine Club was strictly for men, at least until 1975. This did not inhibit keen female climbers, however, and the Ladies’ Alpine Club was established in 1907 by Elizabeth Hawkins-Whitshed.

 

The Weisshorn (photo by Jeff Pang, http://www.flickr.com/photos/jeffpang/4135301354/, via Wikimedia Commons)

 

It was after World War II that climbing became more accessible as a working-class pastime, with clubs proliferating as more and more people took up the challenge, helped by higher wages and shorter working hours. The equipment and clothing available included more waterproof and comfortable alternatives, informed by developments in science such as the commercialisation of nylon.

It was around this time that physiologist Edgar Douglas Adrian FRS (1899-1977; President 1950-55), together with his wife Hester (1899-1966), frequented the Lake District to indulge their passion for climbing. This was slightly less ambitious than the mountaineering Tyndall had undertaken in the Alps, but although Edgar was not pursuing research during the trip, the Adrians’ leisurely climb took a turn that made it more pertinent to Edgar’s work than he could have anticipated.

 

Portrait of Edgar Adrian, by Middleton Todd, 1955 © The Royal Society

 

Edgar and Hester had met at Cambridge, where Hester was pursuing a career in psychiatry and Edgar was studying nerve impulses at Trinity College, having gained a natural history degree at Cambridge and later a medical degree in London. He is renowned most for his Nobel Prize in Physiology in 1932, which he shared with Charles Scott Sherrington for their work on the function of neurons.

The interest that both Edgar and Hester Adrian had in nerve behaviour and health care, respectively, makes the story of their climbing experience in 1942 all the more poignant. The couple were enjoying a climbing and walking break in the Lake District in September, and as Edgar later recounted to his friend, the Finnish-Swedish physiologist Ragnar Granit, they were coming down from an ‘extremely easy climb’ with ‘no difficulty of any kind’ when disaster struck: ‘a large rock, about 5 ft. high, suddenly broke away when I took hold of it. It fell some way but landed on a slope of grass & rocks & came to a standstill after rolling down the slope’ (MM/18/107). The worst of Edgar’s story was yet to come: ‘Hester, though not directly below me, was in the way of the falling rock which crushed her leg both above and below the knee’.

Edgar Adrian does not reveal exactly how they arrived at the nearest hospital, but it is likely they made their way to the bottom of the slope, rather than wait for any rescue operation; he goes on to state that they reached Keswick Hospital with ‘not too long a delay (about 10 hours from the accident)’. Edgar’s recall of the story is thus surprisingly positive. He reported to his friend Granit how Hester had very little shock despite the fact that ‘they could only amputate for the bone was too badly crushed to be saved’. ‘There is even a chance that she will be able to walk well with an artificial leg.’ His optimism may well have been a tactful way to avoid reflecting on the fact that the amputation was caused by a rock he loosened. As he reported to Granit, ‘Hester insists that I must not think of it as my fault and I am trying to obey her’.

To make things worse, as a result of his ongoing research into nerve behaviour, Edgar would have been highly aware of the nerve damage and referred pain that Hester would face, but in January 1943 he again wrote to Granit and informed him that ‘all the doctors and limb fitters who see it admire the stump as just the right length and shape’ (MM/18/108). By October 1943, it seems Hester was able to walk effectively with a prosthetic leg, even as far as eight miles during a summer holiday in Yorkshire (MM/18/109). Hester’s ordeal seemed to hinder her little, and much that she achieved in her career in health and penal work she completed after the amputation. As for Edgar, the accident must have led to a more experiential (albeit by proxy) understanding of nerve impulses pertaining to pain.

 

Making the first scientific journal

Today the Royal Society opens an exhibition to celebrate the earliest and longest-running scientific journal in the world. Entitled ‘The Philosophical Transactions: 350 years of Publishing at the Royal Society (1665-2015)’, the display highlights episodes in the history of the Philosophical Transactions, from its beginnings in 1665 when the ‘journal’ was yet to be defined as a genre of scientific publishing, to its continued production in today’s electronic age. Aptly, just yesterday the Society also celebrated its own anniversary, with Fellows gathering together to mark the foundation of the Society on 28 November 1660.

 

Front covers of the Philosophical Transactions from 1665 and 2010.

 

The exhibition has been curated by researchers working on a project based at the University of St Andrews, ‘Publishing the Philosophical Transactions: the economic, social and cultural history of a learned journal, 1665-2015’, and by staff at the Royal Society. It marks the start of a series of events at the Society to celebrate the journal turning 350 on 6 March 2015; other activities will include a conference on the history of science periodical publishing – ‘Publish or Perish? The past, present and future of the scientific journal’  – to be held in March 2015, and a special issue of the Society’s history of science journal, Notes and Records, which will include selected papers from the conference.

 

Manuscript of James Clerk Maxwell’s ‘A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field’ (Royal Society PT/72/7)

 

Other noteworthy aspects of the 350th year of the Transactions are special issues of the Philosophical Transactions with comments from working scientists on the impact of some of the most important papers published in the journal throughout its existence. One highlight will be James Clerk Maxwell’s 1865 work on electromagnetism, in which he first proposed that light is an electromagnetic wave – the manuscript of this paper is featured in the exhibition. The Society is also producing several short films that take a more sidelong look at the history of the journal, focusing on papers whose importance might not have been recognised in their own time but which gave rise to questions or to new fields of enquiry that are still critical today.

 

Portrait of Henry Oldenburg, 1668, by Jan van Cleve © The Royal Society

 

The exhibition begins with the early history of the Transactions, framed by the activities of Henry Oldenburg, polyglot and secretary to the Royal Society from 1663 to 1677, who spent a brief period in the Tower of London in 1667 for suspected treason, as a result of his receipt and translation of foreign correspondence during the Anglo-Dutch War. It was Oldenburg’s skill as translator, however, and his connections to men of science across Europe that provided the content for his nascent journal, the Transactions, in 1665, and created a form of print whose flexibility, diversity of content and speed of transmission immediately captured the imagination of seventeenth century ‘natural philosophers’ and sparked a revolution in science communication. The Transactions continued to be a prestigious publication into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and was particularly important as practitioners of science became increasingly eager in the nineteenth century to see their discoveries published rapidly and to secure the credit for their inventions.

In addition to documenting the notable successes of the journal, the exhibition also brings to light its survival in the face of criticism in the eighteenth century from a disenfranchised few outside the Society, and reform in the nineteenth century as a result of unrest among the Fellowship. Interwoven with the social, political and cultural circumstances of the journal’s development are the stories of men and women of science who sought publication in the journal. Their experiences reveal how the editorial and reviewing processes evolved from Oldenburg’s sole editorial power, through decision-making by committee, to the use of written referees’ reports and discipline-based advisory editors. For example, the display tells how Charles Darwin faced criticism in 1839 from his referee, Adam Sedgwick, for the unnecessary wordiness in his paper on the parallel roads of Glen Roy; the paper was passed by the Council of the Society and was in fact the only paper Darwin ever published in the Transactions (though he later acted as a referee). The exhibition raises the question of how peer review as we know it today developed from the reviewing practices in place in science periodicals in the nineteenth century.

The exhibition also shows how the Transactions’ contribution to scientific communication long ran at a loss. It was only in the late 1940s that the journal’s income consistently exceeded expenditure. The Society’s Publishing section, which now hosts ten journals in total, has grown to include academic editors, commissioning editors and other professional members of a production team of twenty. While today the journal is delivered largely electronically, the display recalls the manual printing techniques on which the journal relied in the pre-electronic age.

The exhibition ultimately discusses how the Royal Society and its Publishing division, including Philosophical Transactions, continue to be at the forefront of debates about science publishing in an ongoing communication and information revolution. It will run until June 2015.

 

Victorian Science Spectacular

Science and technology play prominent roles in our predictions of the future, whether we are imagining cures for disease, liberation from household chores, or interplanetary tourism. This was equally true in the late nineteenth century, when Victorians noted the significant technological and scientific advances since their grandparents’ days: they were proud of bicycles and typewriters; […]

Victorian Outreach at MUSA

Students on Dr Aileen Fyfe’s special subject (MO4930: Technologies of the Victorians) took their work to a public audience as part of the Fife Science Festival. The ‘Science Snapshot’ event was organised by MUSA on Friday March 14. All the exhibits were linked to photography or visualisation techniques. Alongside displays of virtual reality reconstructions of […]

Don’t try this at home: scientific injuries in the Royal Society archives

By which, of course, I mean records of injuries. Archives themselves tend to be fairly safe environments (although in some remote and older collections, which I probably shouldn’t name, I have found myself teetering at the top of a ladder and wondering how long it would take someone to find me if I fell.) Nevertheless, the records of the Royal Society throw up surprisingly frequent instances of scientists subjecting themselves to the tortures of the damned in pursuit of new knowledge, as well as the occasional laboratory accident. In no particular order, here are a few I’ve stumbled across recently:

 

Portrait of Charles Blagden FRS, by Mary Dawson Turner, after Charles Phillips, 1816

 

1)   Charles Blagden and Joseph Banks – the protagonists of much of our recent research at the Publishing the Phil Trans project – entered rooms heated to very uncomfortable temperatures with a view to finding out what the human frame could stand, and to establishing the relative inefficiency of atmospheric air as a conductor of heat. Blagden wrote the results up for the 1775 volume of Phil Trans; accompanied by Daniel Solander and George Fordyce, they went into specially-heated chambers in which the mercury in the thermometer stood at various temperatures, for as long as they could tolerate it. Rooms heated to 125 or 130 Fahrenheit posed no great challenge, and they stayed in them for 20 minutes or more at a time; Banks, meanwhile, went solo into a room where the air temperature stood at 211 degrees (according to the only thermometer which hadn’t warped or cracked in the heat) and lasted seven minutes. Blagden’s manner of reporting the experiments protests perhaps a little too much in his willingness, indeed his eagerness, to hurt himself in the cause of science: “We all rejoiced”, he says, “at the opportunity of being convinced, by our own experience, of the wonderful power with which the animal body is endued, of resisting an heat vastly greater than its own temperature”. He did, however, go back for a second dose three months later, publishing a paper on these further experiments in the same volume.

2)   Almost anyone who did a science practical in school will remember the safety lectures; my science teacher added to the standard narrative about the careful use of bunsen burners and the wearing of lab coats and protective goggles at all times an anecdote about his own science teacher’s demonstration of the percussive detonation of gunpowder involving some gunpowder, a bench, a hammer, and a broken arm for the teacher. Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac, the great French chemist and discoverer of boron, would perhaps have benefited from some basic instruction on workplace health and safety. Writing from Paris in 1808 (the letter had to go in the American diplomatic bag to get around the interruption of normal communication between English and French scientists caused by the Napoleonic Wars), Richard Chenevix explained to Blagden why not much had been heard from Gay-Lussac lately: “In preparing his potash he threw a large quantity of it into some alcohol an explosion immediately took place and he has suffered dreadfully. For a long time his sight was dispaired of but there are hopes at present.”

3)   Gay-Lussac was later put in charge of the giant voltaic battery Napoleon ordered to be built at the Polytechnic Institute in Paris. (Legend has it that Napoleon, whose own ideas of lab safety could have done with a quick refresher course, almost knocked himself out by applying his tongue to one of the battery’s terminals in order to test it.) Volta himself, as well as Alexander von Humboldt, both reported deliberately subjecting themselves to electric shocks; in Humboldt’s case, according to Joseph Banks, the experiment consisted of ‘put[ting] 2 blisters upon his back & to communicate these with his mouth Nose & Eyes by wyers that he might See taste & Smell Galvanism at the Same time in which he says he succeeded tho not without horrible pain which he sufferd like a True German.’ Banks recommended the account to a friend whom he thought it would amuse. It’s not clear which Banks found funnier – Humboldt’s self-inflicted injuries, or his performance of Teutonic fortitude.

 

Robert Boyle’s air pump, from his ‘New experiments physico-mechanicall’ (1660).

 

4)   No round-up of auto-experimentation in science would be complete without a mention of Robert Hooke. As well as a medical regimen, meticulously recorded in his diary, which was breathtaking in its variety and toxicity, Hooke subjected himself to the vacuum generated by the air pump he built for Robert Boyle. When the King’s cousin, Prince Rupert, attended a meeting of the Society in 1662, he was entertained with a demonstration of the air pump.  The need to put on a spectacular show for the royal guest was surely in everyone’s mind, and it’s been suggested that Hooke was very probably the unnamed man who thrust his arm into the exhausted receiver, which produced an immediate swelling, an enlargement of the veins in the arm almost to bursting point, and the speckling of burst capillaries when he eventually withdrew it.

Of course, there were particular experiments where volunteers were hard to find. We’ve already discussed the contentiousness and hysteria surrounding smallpox inoculation in the 1720s on this blog; another notable area of difficulty was blood transfusion. Hooke was also involved in these experiments in the 1660s, culminating in a successful transfusion from a live sheep into a penurious student named Arthur Coga.  This experiment was not soon repeated, but it gave rise to another notable scientific tradition – that of the student supplementing his income by participating in a clinical trial!

 

Edelstein Prize

Dr Aileen Fyfe‘s book Steam-Powered Knowledge: William Chambers and the Business of Publishing, 1820-1860 has won the Edelstein Prize, an award given by the Society for the History of Technology. The prize was awarded at the Society’s annual meeting in Portland, Maine, where the book was honoured with a roundtable discussion. Panelists praised Steam-Powered Knowledge for […]

Tracing authors’ copies of the Philosophical Transactions

The ‘Publishing the Philosophical Transactions Project’ is in its seventh month at the Royal Society. To date, one aspect of the Phil Trans that has continued to crop up in our research is authors’ copies or, as they are often called, authors’ offprints. When scholars publish a paper, whether in a science or humanities journal, they usually get a copy of the finished version. Today, this is often electronic. If a paper version, an author might get five copies, maybe ten. In my experience, these usually go to grandparents, parents and unfortunate friends. The rest end up in the recycling bin.

Before electronic publishing came to the Royal Society around 1990, the common practice was to allow authors one hundred copies of their papers, each. In the twenty-first century, when many people read from their laptops or tablets, this seems like an enormous amount to dispose of. Yet, that is exactly what authors in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century did.  For some, even the one hundred copies were insufficient. For example, Mr T. Wharton Jones applied by letter to the Council of the Royal Society for fifty additional offprints of his paper on ‘The Microscopical Examination of the Hepatic Ducts & C.’, printed in Phil Trans in 1848. The large number of ‘extra copies’ printed led the Treasurer, Edward Sabine, to rule in 1852 that if the number of offprints for any one author should exceed one hundred, the expenses of printing and paper would be covered by the author.

Edward Sabine FRS, Treasurer of the Royal Society 1850-61 and President 1861-71, by Stephen Pearce, 1855.

 

Thus, in 1873, Warren de la Rue went straight to the Society’s printers, Taylor and Francis, and paid £6 for 50 extra copies of his paper. Two years later, the chemists Captain Noble and F. A. Abel paid Taylor and Francis to produce 150 extra offprints of their paper, ‘Researches on Explosives’, from Phil Trans in 1875, costing them £14 7s 6d. The cost to these authors was not a deterrent to getting their hands on multiple prints. Even more additional copies were ordered in 1856, when Colonel James requested 250 copies of his two papers for the Phil Trans, now in press, printed for him at his own expense, in addition to the one hundred copies furnished to him by the Society.

Evidently, a large number of Phil Trans papers ended up circulating as separate texts. One of the challenges in our project is to trace the distribution of these offprints: where and to whom were they sent?  Having received his one hundred prints, British physician Lionel Beale requested in 1864 a further 150 copies of his paper; printed in the Phil Trans in 1863, it was on the structure and formation of nerve-cells. The purpose of the duplicates, as Beale revealed to the Council of the Society, was for ‘separate publication on the Continent’. Beale, however, was keen to acknowledge the source, insisting that ‘the publication shall bear on the title that it is an extra-impression from the Philosophical Transactions’. Beale was eager for his work to reach beyond the Fellows of the Royal Society, and to come to the attention of his colleagues in the rest of Europe. The very physical format of his original paper in the Phil Trans was transformed to facilitate its transmission over space. Also necessary were modes of transport, in the form of the steam train and sea travel. Authors’ offprints thus facilitated the dissemination of science from the place of its production.

Some Phil Trans authors, however, were less ambitious in the geographic spread of their work, merely hoping to distribute their papers among colleagues in the UK. This too was made easier by the expansion of rail travel in the nineteenth century. Still, readers in the UK faced the problem of accessing the most recent scientific papers. There were no electronic search engines, and manual lists of scientific papers were only starting to emerge. In fact, in the 1850s the Society begun to compose a Catalogue of Scientific Papers, ordered by author surname and listing all contributions in the Phil Trans and in other scientific journals across Europe.

The relative difficulty of tracing science papers is perhaps why James Jeans’s Cambridge colleagues wrote to him while he lay infirm in Hampshire to request copies of his work in the Phil Trans. In 1902 and 1903 respectively, Godfrey Hardy (1877–1947), who was a fellow mathematician at Trinity College, and Arthur Hinks (1873–1945) from the Royal Observatory, asked for two separate papers. Not yet Fellows of the Royal Society, they were not automatically in receipt of the Phil Trans. In the early twentieth century, Phil Trans was distributed as a complete volume or in parts of a volume, which were available to subscribers (including Fellows of the Society) and to casual purchasers, as well as to subscribing institutions. Individual papers were not readily supplied, except to authors who, as noted, were entitled to up to one hundred free copies.

There was another way both Hardy and Hinks could have read Jeans’s papers: although Cambridge was geographically removed from the Royal Society, the Cambridge University Library was among the institutions listed in the introductory pages of the journal as entitled to the Phil Trans. Yet photocopying was not an option until the 1940s, and asking the author for a print was probably an easier option than spending several hours transcribing from the original in the University Library, and was cheaper than employing someone else to do so.

The actual offprints of Jeans’s and others’ papers, some of which are preserved in research libraries today, may prove to be an important source in understanding the readership and distribution of the Phil Trans, if we can locate them. These texts, separated from the Phil Trans volume in which they originated, were probably read in the scientists’ private offices, discussed over coffee, and may have been annotated as readers agreed with or questioned the findings presented.