Thursday, 25 October 2018

Science, Religion and Joseph Wright of Derby

2018 marks the 250th Anniversary of Joseph Wright of Derby’s magnificent painting “Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump” (see below) and, to understand its subject, we need to travel back in time to gain a brief impression of life in England in 1768. Transport was still mainly on rough roads and tracks, although a canal network was beginning to develop and the first canals were in operation. These enabled the transport of heavy loads and provided an effective means of distribution, both essential factors allowing the Industrial Revolution that was to begin in the 1780s. On the intellectual front, there was much interest in scientific discoveries, especially those by Newton, Boyle and Hooke in the latter half of the 17th Century, and Enlightenment groups met to discuss science and its role in the wider cultural world. It was a time of great intellectual excitement and the Lunar Circle, founded in 1765, was an important group of Enlightenment figures that maintained contact through active correspondence. The group became even more famous in 1775 as the Lunar Society, holding meetings in the Midlands each month, at the time of the full moon.

Joseph Wright was an associate of the Lunar Circle and was influenced strongly by the thinking of its members [1]. He was born in 1734, the fourth child, and third son, of John Wright, an attorney in Derby; a profession that John had inherited from his father and which he passed on to this eldest son, also called John. Joseph’s father was nicknamed “Equity Wright” because of his fairness in the application of the law [2] and one can imagine that Joseph grew up in an atmosphere of considered values and where there was much discussion. It is also likely that music also played a part in family life, as Joseph became a competent flautist and music meant a good deal to him throughout his life. He had a passion for drawing and became fascinated by forges, what was made there and the play of light generated by the fire. Joseph also made models of guns and of “raree shows” (early peepshows) [1] that itinerant entertainers brought to the town. 

Although clearly skilled with his hands, it was not clear what profession Joseph would follow, as his father was resistant to him becoming a professional artist. In later life, Joseph suffered from anxiety and depression [1], so we can imagine that he was a sensitive youth, keen to follow his passion for drawing and painting. John saw this and changed his view about his son’s future career, deciding that Joshua needed an expert teacher. He arranged for him to be apprenticed to Thomas Hudson in London in 1751 [2], who specialised in portraiture and ten years earlier had been the master of Joshua Reynolds.

From Hudson, Wright learned much about painting technique and he became an accomplished technical painter, carefully building up pictures on the canvas and ensuring that there was a good binding between layers [3]. On returning to Derby, Joseph then began to take commissions for portraits (always popular among potential clients), returning to Hudson’s studio in 1756 to further polish his skills. Alongside his work as a portraitist, Joseph continued his interest in the effects of light on subjects and this reached its peak in the great painting that is the subject of this essay. In looking at light, he was strongly influenced by John Whitehurst FRS, a member of the Lunar Circle who lived in Derby. Whitehurst was a clock and instrument maker who had been recognised by the Royal Society and, from that august body, learned of Newton’s studies on optics and much else besides. Whitehurst was expert in his knowledge of the physical sciences and, being twenty years older than Joshua, was an authority figure to him. The other major influence on Joshua’s thinking was Erasmus Darwin [4], who was to move to Derby later in life, but who lived in Lichfield in the 1760s. Darwin was a physician (he treated Wright), but was also a poet and an accomplished natural historian. He was an early exponent of ideas on evolution, although these were sketchy.

With this background, let’s turn to “Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump”. Of course, we cannot see the layering of the paint but we are certainly aware of a strong chiaroscuro, with illumination provided by a candle. We do not see the flame, nor, of course, do we see any flickering, but we are aware that the chiaroscuro provides an oval frame for the principal subject matter. The only objects outside this “frame” are the window, the boy holding the cage, the hand of the experimenter and (dimly) some features of the room in which the meeting is taking place. Our gaze is mainly concentrated within this oval frame and we whizz round the characters, from the experimenter to the others in the room, stopping to look at them before moving on. A separate “oval of illumination within the oval” highlights two girls and a gentleman and verticals within the composition draw us across to see other features. I have not seen any print-outs of eye movement trackers from those looking at Wright’s masterpiece, but I would imagine that they would be highly dynamic.

The subject of the painting is a travelling demonstration in which various Enlightenment topics were to be presented. I imagine that the show began with a discussion of optics and, especially, of refraction in fluids. Two jars have sticks in them (see details above) and we see clearly how these appear broken: the effect of the shape of a curved vessel on their appearance is also evident. While the jar that is closest to us also contains a cloudy fluid, and an object that is difficult to define, the jar to the right, which has had its cork removed, contains a stick that appears to be a cut-down quill. Drawing up liquid in the hollow quill, using it like a contemporary drinking straw, introduced the audience to the idea of the effect of lowered pressure on fluids and the power of atmospheric pressure. This led to one of the central themes of the painting – the use of an air pump. The one illustrated was probably designed by Hauksbee and consisted of two cylinders, each of which contained a piston. By turning the handle on the pump, a link caused the pistons to move up and down and, because valves were present, air was drawn out of any chamber to which the tube of the air pump was attached. Air pumps played a vital role in 17th Century science, leading to important demonstrations of the role of air in affecting the fall of objects (feathers falling at the same rate as coins); combustion (a lit taper becomes extinguished in a vacuum); and the effect of vacuum on sound, but not light (light passing through a vacuum but not sound).

The first experiment with the air pump was to demonstrate the power of atmospheric pressure using Magdeburg hemispheres. These are seen on the table (see above) and the demonstration began by holding the two hemispheres together while the tube from the air pump was attached to the side of the resultant sphere. A vacuum was then created and the tap of the connection closed so that it was maintained. It is probable that the evacuated sphere was then passed around the audience and no-one would have been able to pull the two hemispheres apart. On releasing the vacuum, the pressure equalised between the hemispheres and the surrounding air, and they could be separated easily, perhaps to the astonishment of some, but not all, of the audience.

The second experiment with the air pump was a demonstration of the effect of a lack of air on life – a biological experiment. I imagine that there was much discussion among the group about life and our failure to define it (something we still have difficulty with) and the subject of the experiment was a cockatoo that had been removed from its cage (above the boy on the right). The unfortunate bird was placed into the glass chamber and the experimenter’s assistant (who has his side to us, see above) began to turn the handle of the air pump. The first thing noticed by the audience would be that the squawking of the bird became less audible as the vacuum was formed and the cockatoo's panic became less as it began to suffocate. At this point, I imagine that the assistant, who was timing the experiment, used the snuffer in front of him to put out the candle flame and the room would then have darkened, to be lit only by moonlight. The experimenter then gently allowed air into the vessel (we see his hand poised on the valve before the candle is extinguished, see below), the candle was re-lit by means of a taper and there was much relief that the bird was able to recover and eventually be placed back in its cage. For a time, just before the candle was snuffed, it was not known what the result would be and the painting shows us the expressions of the audience at this moment of maximum tension. Let’s consider their reactions.

The experimenter strikes a dramatic pose that one would expect at the moment before the candle is snuffed. He challenges us by staring straight from the painting, with his hand outstretched. The person that I recognise as the experimenter’s assistant is focused on proceedings (as he needs to be) and seems dispassionate, while the boy to his left is focussed on the fate of the bird, with some anticipation and excitement. The gentleman at the bottom right is clearly contemplating death and he is fixed on the memento mori [2] provided by the skull-like, but amorphous, object in the jar at the front of the table. He has a walking stick with him, not an elegant cane, and we assume that he needs this for support and that he is feeling the effects of age. The couple at the left upper of the painting seem rather detached and one can imagine that they are a couple who are out for an evening’s entertainment, while mainly being interested in each other. One can almost imagine the man making a cheeky comment or two during proceedings and his thoughts may well have been on things other than the possible death of the bird: perhaps on events that result in new human lives coming into existence? In contrast to his apparent nonchalance, the two girls on the right show distress and anxiety at what is happening and they are being comforted by the gentleman who gives the impression that he has seen the experiment before and knows that the bird will not die. The linking of the girls’ arms, and the oval of light that bathes them, stresses the strength of their feelings; the hand around the shoulder of the elder girl provides reassurance. One might ask what young girls are doing at an evening of this kind, something that becomes clearer when the symbolism of the work is explored in the next part of this essay.

Thus far, we have taken the painting at face value, but it also reminds us of many Christian religious works. Let’s consider some of the imagery in the painting from this standpoint and think about how this links to Enlightenment thinking on the importance of science and of scientific experiments. The evening then becomes one of “worship”. The candle flame illuminates everything and this is a parallel to the Light of the World of Christianity. We now have an an explanation for the presence of the girls, as we know from Luke’s Gospel chapter 18 verse 16 that we should “suffer little children to come unto me”. This applies to the new knowledge in science, just as it does to the Christian religion, and the gentleman reassuring the girls thus has the role, and demeanour, of a cleric. The disinterested couple are so involved with themselves that neither religion or science is likely to touch them that evening and the elderly gentleman in the foreground knows that death is approaching, however we understand that event. 

The experimenter has been identified as John Whitehurst [2], but the long grey hair and angular features bear a resemblance to the image of Sir Isaac Newton painted by Sir Godfrey Kneller in 1689. While this might be coincidental, it does make a connection in our minds. Newton was recognised in Wright’s time (and ours) as having made extraordinary advances in optics (the early part of the demonstration in the painting) and other branches of the physical sciences and mathematics and thus would have an almost theistic status among some Enlightenment thinkers. Although he was an egomaniac, this role would not have gone down well with Newton himself, as he was a Christian, even though years of intense scholarship resulted in doubts about some of the tenets of the Christian Church [5]. Our experimenter certainly controls the life and death of the bird and his hand, at the uppermost part of the painting, is like the hand of God (see above).

The most important symbol in the painting is the cockatoo and one wonders whether such a bird would have been risked in the demonstration. Cockatoos come originally from what we now call Australasia and Indonesia and there are several species, the commonest of which is the sulphur-crested cockatoo. The bird in the painting lacks a yellow crest and appears to be the same bird that Wright had painted five years before in his portrait of Mr and Mrs Chase (see above). Cockatoos are known to live for many decades, even a hundred years being possible, and the bird in the experiment would have been a cherished pet. In addition to much squawking, cockatoos are also known to mimic sounds, including human voices, so it is probable that the bird in the experiment “talked” a few words (that is likely to have been understood by those observing the painting, even if its presence is an invention). It must have been rare and, no doubt, expensive, and hardly likely to be risked in a real experiment. White cockatoos were found in Europe in much earlier times and their long life may have allowed them to be traded along old trade routes like the Silk Road, having been obtained originally from people selling spices from southern Asia. Interestingly, the painting by Andrea Mantegna of “Madonna della Vittoria” sees the Virgin sitting in a bower that has birds sitting in the trellis-work. One of the these is clearly a white cockatoo – and this in a work from 1496 (see below, with detail).

The boy on the right of the illuminated group looks out, and up, from the painting and holds the rope of the empty cage. Like the rest of the audience, he wonders whether the bird will be returned and, at the moment the candle is snuffed, he will be brightly illuminated by the moonlight streaming through the window. This leads us further into the religious symbolism of the work. A white bird, usually a dove, is used as a convention to represent the Holy Spirit and we know from St John’s Gospel; chapter 14 verse 16 that Christ tells his Disciples that, after He leaves them, they will be comforted by a counsellor, widely interpreted as being the Holy Spirit. In the original Greek, the counsellor is termed parakletos and, in Wright’s day, the term paraclete was a familiar term for the Holy Spirit. As a cockatoo is rather like a parakeet (a term known to be used from the 16th Century), and can mimic human speech, is it too much of a stretch in imagination to think that we are looking at the symbolic threat to the idea of the Holy Spirit by the discoveries of scientific experiments?  Certainly, the moonlight suggests that the Lunar Circle and Enlightenment thinking had a part to play in asking this question. We know that Erasmus Darwin, a major influence on Wright, tended toward atheism [4] (although care is needed in interpreting that term) and perhaps his influence is being demonstrated here? We do not know whether Wright was a theist, but it is likely as he was probably a Freemason and Whitehurst, his mentor, was certainly an active Mason [2].

“Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump” suggests that we are witnessing the beginnings of a conflict between science and religion in the late 1700s. The Christian Church held immense power for centuries up to the Enlightenment, but scientific discoveries and, even more importantly, their application to industrial processes, was having an effect on this power. Another jolt was to come 90 years after Wright’s painting when Charles Darwin (Erasmus Darwin’s grandson) published “The Origin of Species” in 1859. In the contemporary world, we have strongly materialist societies and the Christian religion is losing its significance (although other religions, each with their own moral code, are increasing their influence,). As Science moves to ever more mechanistic approaches – we are now threatened with Quantum Biology, for example – there is belief that this will provide more and more answers. For sure, there will be useful spin-offs, just like there have been from studies in genetics, but the demeaning of pure research as being “blue sky”, and the blind growth of mechanism looks to me to bear the threat of a new Dark Age. I wonder how Wright’s painting will be viewed in 250 years’ time? Perhaps theistic explanations will be favoured and those of science found wanting – the reverse of the position anticipated by Wright’s painting?

[1] William Bemrose (1885) The Life and Works of Joseph Wright, A.R.A., commonly called “Wright of Derby.” London, Bemrose and Sons

[2] Stephen Daniels (2002) Joseph Wright. London, Tate Gallery Publishing.

[3] Rica Jones (1990) Wright of Derby’s techniques of painting. In: Wright of Derby (ed. Judy Egerton). London, Tate Gallery Publishing.

[4] David Fraser (1990) Joseph Wright of Derby and the Lunar Society. In: Wright of Derby (ed. Judy Egerton). London, Tate Gallery Publishing.

[5] Richard Westfall (1993) The Life of Isaac Newton. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

I was invited to give a Lunchtime Talk on Joseph Wright of Derby’s “Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump” at the National Gallery in London in October 2018. This essay provides the background to the talk and a flavour of its content.

For a larger image of the painting, see:,_1768.jpg

I would like to thank Paul Ranford and Matthew Morgan for conversations that have influenced my ideas and Lucy Bamford for pointing out typographical errors in the original post..

For those wanting to know more about Joseph Wright, Stephen Daniels’ book [2] provides an excellent, and accessible, review of the artist and his influences.

Friday, 21 September 2018

Marine stonemasons

If I mention the word “worms”, most people think of earthworms and many view them with distaste. There are several species, all looking rather similar, and we don’t find them attractive because they are slimy and often live in decomposing organic matter. However, it is not unknown for infants to try eating them, so our dislike is something we learned from adults or older children.

We are less familiar with marine worms, and there are many different forms. The white calcareous tubes you see on rocks, or the small spiral tubes found on seaweeds like wracks, are secreted by worms and there is every likelihood that the worm is still resident when you see their ”home” at low tide. Marine worms of many species live in tubes and, in addition to those made from secreted calcium salts, these may be poorly consolidated – as with the lugworms beloved of sea anglers – or constructed of grains cemented together to prevent abrasion by moving sand grains. However, these tubes offer little protection against predation by wading birds in shallow water.

The mason worm (Lanice) is widely distributed and extends from the inter-tidal down to 1900 m [1] and may occur in very high densities (up to 20,000 individuals per square metre [2]). Lanice makes tubes that extend above the surface of the sandy mud in which the worms live and each tube has extensions at its tip. Where present as dense reefs, Lanice tubes promote sedimentation of fine mineral and organic particles and these sediments increase biodiversity [3]; the worms being referred to as “ecosystem engineers”. Close examination shows the tube and extensions to be made of sand grains and shell fragments cemented together by a secretion of the worm - thus the term mason worm (see above in a wonderful image captured by Jim Greenfield).

Lanice is in the group of worms known as terebellids and they feed when the worm and its tube are covered by water, so feeding can best be observed when worms are transplanted to an aquarium tank. The tentacles at the front of the body (see above) are extensible and very mobile and, if we  look at them under a microscope, we see many hundreds of thousands of beating hairs (cilia) over their surface and also a covering of mucus, produced from cells within the tissues of the tentacles [4]. Algae and detritus become attached to the tentacles when they are spread on to the substratum and the cilia then carry the mucus-bound “packages” to the mouth where they are ingested. Waste products are removed by the currents of water that the worm generates by moving its body within the tube.

Lanice also feeds by spreading the tentacles over the “fan” of extensions constructed at the top of its tube, collecting particles from the currents that result from wave action. We know that the particles carried in suspension contain micro-aggregates formed by bubbles created when waves break [5] and these, too, form part of the food for the worms, together with anything else that becomes swept up.

How do the worms locate their habitat? The answer is that it is largely a matter of chance. After reproduction (there are separate male and female worms [6]), larvae become planktonic and are carried around in the water column by currents and by their own swimming by means of the ciliated bands on their body (a second use of cilia for larvae as they also use these organelles to gather food). The large majority of planktonic larvae are eaten, or fail to reach a suitable substratum, but, when they do, each larva swims down and begins to transform into a small worm and begin their work as “masons”.

Far from feeling distaste at the sight of these worms, I marvel at their biology and how they evolved their form and habits. The sense of wonder is one of the pleasures of Natural History and the never-ending fascination of looking at living creatures.

[1] R. M. S. Alves, C. Van Colen, M. Vincx, J. Vanaverbeke, B. De Smet, J.-M. Guarini, M. Rabaut and T.J. Bouma (2017) A case study on the growth of Lanice conchilega (Pallas, 1766) aggregations and their ecosystem engineering impact on sedimentary processes. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology 489: 15-23.

[2] A. Nicolaidou (2003) Observations on the re-establishment and tube construction by adults of the polychaete Lanice conchilega. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom 83: 1223-1224.

[3] B. De Smet, A.-S. D’Hondt, P. Verhelst, J. Fournier, L. Godet, N. Desroy, M. Rabaut, M. Vincx and J. Vanaverbeke (2015) Biogenic reefs affect multiple components of intertidal soft-bottom benthic assemblages: the Lanice conchilega case study. Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science 152: 44-55.

[4] R. P. Dales (1955) Feeding and digestion in terebellid polychaetes. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom 34: 55-79.

[5] R. S. Wotton (1996) Colloids, bubbles and aggregates: a perspective on their role in suspension feeding. Journal of the North American Benthological Society 15: 127-135.

Friday, 31 August 2018

Land and Sea

Visitors to Torbay, where I lived in the 1950s and 1960s, crowded to the beaches when the tide was out, but had to retreat further and further up the sands as the tide was coming in. Then, many left the beach area to go in search of ice cream, sea food, chips and dougnuts - and to play in the amusement arcades.

As a child, I realised that the tidal cycle varied from day to day and also through each month. It was only later that I uderstood that this was the effect of the gravitational pull of the sun and moon on the World’s oceans and that tides were the result of “bulges” and “troughs” in these huge masses of water, reaching their highest when the sun and moon were in alignment in what are termed spring tides. Waves would crash against the shore when the wind was blowing a gale from the east during spring tides and I loved going to the seafront during these storms to watch the cascades of spray – such a contrast to lying on the sand on a warm summer day. After these storms, there would be sand, stones, shells and all manner of flotsam washed on to the promenade behind the sea wall that marked the limit of the blue on a map...

Occasionally, there have been catastrophic breaches in sea defences, as occurred along the coast with the dramatic collapse of the village of Hallsands in Start Bay at the beginning of the Twentieth Century (see above). It was a fishing village, with a sea wall, and was also protected by underwater shingle banks offshore. These shingles were considered very suitable for building purposes and they were dredged, resulting in Hallsands losing a key defence against the effect of storms. The remains of the village provide sombre evidence of the power of the sea as an erosive force and, as a child, I found that looking down on the remains adjacent to the cliff brought a sense of fear and awe. This dramatic location was used in Michael Winner’s film The System [1] for a scene where the characters played by Oliver Reed and Jane Merrow had a romantic liaison – the forbidding atmosphere of the place providing a metaphor for what was to happen in their future relationship.

More recently, there has been serious erosion to the north of Torbay, with the breakthrough of the sea wall at Dawlish and the subsequent undercutting of the main railway line to South Devon and Cornwall. Brunel is widely recognised as a brilliant engineer, but his vision was sometimes unchecked. Certainly, his building of a railway line between sandstone cliffs and the sea was a recipe for trouble and so it has proved on many occasions. The sandstone cliffs of Dawlish (I use the term sandstone to include breccias, where large mineral fragments are embedded in a sandy matrix) are pitted and sculpted by the action of winds and rain and this gives us a clue to another form of coastal erosion; that from landward. Any visitor to the “Jurassic Coast” in southern England is familiar with regular rock falls, as are those who walk under chalk cliffs. They also occur in sandstone areas. There is a good example of such a fall just to the north of Torbay, between Oddicombe and Petitor. This is how the great writer Philip Henry Gosse describes this part of the coast in the 1860s [2]:

Along the margin of a cliff, now steep and sheer, now breaking into an uneven but variously verdant slope, we begin our march, ever and anon pausing to gaze on the smiling scene below. The descent we are just leaving behind, half-covered with the gorse and guelder-rose, is Oddicombe, whose white crescent beach lies below, bounded by the limestone promontory of Petit Tor, which divides the huge precipices of red sandstone close at hand from the bluff coast of the same formation that stretches away to the northward; its ruddy cliffs and bold headlands – Watcombe, The Ness at the mouth of the Teign, the perforated rocks and needles near Dawlish – gradually fading into blue as the coast-line trends away to the eastward, and is lost to the aching gaze somewhere about the boundary of the county.

It is a lovely scene..

Gosse lived in St Marychurch, Torquay, and he made extensive collections of marine organisms between Oddicombe and Petitor, but the sandstone outcrop is different in profile to the one with which he was so familiar. Recent cliff falls have strewn the beach below with masses of rubble (see below), including the remains of houses built on the cliff top to give fine views. Sandstone is a porous rock and consists of mineral grains eroded from older rocks that have become cemented with new mineral deposits and then compressed. In some areas deep within the Earth’s crust, porous sandstone strata provide reservoirs containing oil that we extract after drilling: a similar feature to the aquifers contained within chalk, from which we extract water using boreholes. Needless to say, sandstone that becomes saturated with water, and that is fractured, produces slides like those seen repeatedly at Oddicombe. If you wish to know more of these events, the website of Ian West and Nikolett Csorvasi [3] has many excellent illustrations of the Oddicombe cliffs over time and is well worth browsing.

The original sand that formed the rock may come from deserts, or from sediments at the bottom of seas or lakes. This takes us to the idea of time scales. The coastline of Torbay, so obviously composed to the observer of bands of limestone, sandstone, slates and shales [3], would have looked very different just a few thousand years ago, although the underlying rocks were, of course, always present. Sea level is higher now that it was then and we know that coastal forests have been flooded [4]; remains becoming visible during contemporary low spring tides. If we could see pictures from that time, we would still recognise headlands, although these would be inland and have rather different profiles to the ones we see today. If we go further back in time everything is changed markedly, with the island of Great Britain joined to continental Europe. Before that, Great Britain was part of a huge land mass on a tectonic plate moving around the surface of the Earth, supported on the Earth's magma core.

The Oddicombe cliff falls are easy to recall as they continue and there have been major collapses in the last ten years. We know of the destruction of Hallsands village from contemporary records, and we know of the Torbay forests from the evidence of their remains, although some find it difficult to believe. Events that occurred a million, tens of millions, hundreds of millions and thousands of millions of years ago are quite beyond our understanding. We are sure they occurred, but we cannot comprehend geological time scales. We never will.

[2] Philip Henry Gosse (1865) Land and Sea. London, James Nisbet & Co.

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

William Martin – opponent of the Establishment

William Martin (1772-1851) was “an able mechanic” [1] who worked as a ropemaker and also served in the militia, where he developed a reputation as a highly competent swordsman, often taking part in, and winning, duels [2]. He was also an inventor and, in his biography [2], he includes the following quote, where Mackenzie describes well-known residents of the Parish of Wallsend in Newcastle-upon-Tyne [3]:

“William Martin, the Natural Philosopher,” resides here. He has published, under the patronage of his Grace the Duke of Northumberland, “A New System of Natural Philosophy, on the Principle of Perpetual Motion; with a Variety of other Useful Discoveries.” From the Lord having made man a living soul, by breathing into his nostrils the breath of life, Mr Martin infers that air is the cause of perpetual motion.. ..Mr Martin’s other discoveries are numerous and useful. They consist of a life-preserver for seamen, air-fans for ventilating coal-mines, an inimitable safety-lamp, a plan for curing the dry-rot, cutting canals, and extinguishing fires at sea; also an improved velocipede, a suspension bridge, &c &c. But unfortunately, though under such noble patronage, his inventions have not been brought to a successful termination; and most of them have been stolen from him by unprincipled men! Mr M. did, however, obtain, in 1814, a silver medal and ten guineas from the Society of Arts, for his invention a of a spring weighing machine...

Based on this description, what are we to make of William Martin? His Perpetual Motion Machine was exhibited in London in 1808 and among those who saw it was Charles Hutton FRS, the famous mathematician [4]. He complimented William on the elegance of construction, but concluded that the pendulum of the machine continued to swing because of the influence of magnets. William, quite rightly, denied this, but chose not to explain that a hidden tube connected with the outside of the building allowing atmospheric air to be drawn to and fro, just beneath the ball at the base of the pendulum. William himself gave a description of the machine in 1825 but it is difficult to imagine its construction without seeing a version of it. As to his other inventions, Balston [4] concludes that “..William’s safety-lamp and weighing-machine were of real value..” and it may well be that the lamp was superior to those of Davy and Stephenson that became most widely known. Among William’s less successful inventions was the “Northumberland Eagle Mail”, a type of dandy horse bicycle propelled by the feet of the rider (see below – there were many versions and we do not know who copied whom). William used this to ride from town to town giving lectures on Natural Philosophy, although Balston [4] describes the failure of one demonstration: “…on the Town Moor, he got excessively hot propelling it over the rough ground and was pelted with mud by the spectators.”

Clearly, William was thick-skinned as well as having a talent for invention, although he continued to be irked by what he felt was a lack of recognition and this set him against the scientific Establishment. He clearly retained a liking for duels, although not of the kind in which he was so successful as a younger man. Seccombe [1] writes:

He founded the Martinean Society, based on opposition to the Royal Society, and particularly hostile to the Newtonian theory of gravitation, against which he harboured a growing antagonism, which ultimately embraced all men of science. Styling himself ‘anti-newtonian’, Martin began giving lectures, first in the Newcastle district and from 1830 throughout England. Throughout these years his voice was heard at many meetings, ranting against scientists in general. He was inevitably drawn to the annual gatherings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the butt of his polemic The defeat of the eighth scientific meeting of the British Association of Asses, which we may properly call the rich folks’ hopping, or the false philosophers in an uproar (1838).

In addition to his views on science and scientists, William also pronounced on politics and economics (I apologise on his behalf for the sexism) [4]:

He believed that there was much more wisdom among the poor than among the rich and thought that only poor men should be elected to Parliament. The college-bred man, he said, could make great speeches, but a man could be a wonderful speaker without being wise. He scouted the idea that England was over-populated, and said that shortage of food and employment was wholly due to the mismanagement of the rich. He advocated Government works – improving roads, reclaiming waste land, planting forests, and enclosing commons – as the cure for unemployment. He proposed a two-shilling income tax on all incomes above £100, and was ready to compensate the taxpayers by giving each of them a gold medal or star to wear, with the total amount of his taxes engraved on it.

It’s no surprise that the wider Establishment also rejected him after such an attack. As we look back at William Martin, this quote from a review of his book A New System of Natural Philosophy in The Newcastle Magazine of January 1822 concludes [5]:

When Mr Martin’s volume is read in the 21st century.. ..the wise of that day will doubtless exclaim that, though not quite so extensive as the universe, his works are equally inexplicable. After a quotation or two, and a few exclamations about the greatness of God, and the raptures of our author at the sight of Jupiter, Saturn, and Venus.. ..Mr Martin concludes with the republication of Pope’s universal prayer, which, an ill-natured critic would say, is certainly, though not the most amusing, by far the most instructive piece of philosophy in the book.

That’s right up there among the best damning reviews one could get, but I haven’t read William Martin’s book so I am not in a position to judge. However, having been trained as a scientist, I am conscious of the need to avoid exaggeration and dishonesty, although there are cases of scientists who bend the rules to get exposure. Although he was not trained as a scientist, William Martin provides an example of someone who had talent, but did not follow this creed, yet it is easy to warm to his stand against the political Establishment and the role of the “ruling class”. His ideas on economics also have a contemporary feel.

Do we appreciate characters such as William Martin and, more importantly, should we pay them much attention? How extraordinary, too, that William and two of his brothers all became famous in their day: Jonathan (1782-1838) was a notorious arsonist, driven by his religious beliefs [6], and John (1789-1854) a well-known artist who has works in the collection at Tate Britain. 

[1] Thomas Seccombe, revised by Anita McConnell (2006) William Martin (1772-1851). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

[2] William Martin (1833) A Short Outline of the Philosopher’s Life, from being a Child in Frocks to the Present Day, etc. Newcastle, J Blackwell and Co..

[3] E. Mackenzie (1825) An Historical, Topographical, and Descriptive View of the County of Northumberland, etc. Volume II. Newcastle upon Tyne, Mackenzie and Dent.

[4] Thomas Balston (1945) The Life of Jonathan Martin, Incendiary of York Minster. London, Macmillan & Co.

[5] Anon (1822) William Martin, The Natural Philosopher! The Newcastle Magazine, January 1822 pages 25-28.

Monday, 13 August 2018

Changing our appearance

Modern Biology is dominated by molecular approaches and, especially, the role of genes in evolution and in medicine. In contrast, my degree studies in Zoology in the 1960s were based on the structure and function of a wide range of whole organisms. However, we were introduced to the importance of genes and the way that they interact with the environment (whether within a single cell, within an individual, or outside an individual) through the phenotype (the appearance created by gene expression). We learned that changes in the genotype (the whole genetic makeup, also called the genome) that occurred by chance mutations resulted in changes in the phenotype and that a changing environment allowed the selection of different phenotypes (and thus genotypes) that would be favoured. It is the process of natural selection that Darwin propounded, with the addition of an explanation based on genetics. In the natural world, the process whereby a genetic mutation results in a successful phenotype may take thousands of years to spread through a population: much less in primitive organisms with short, or very short, life cycles.

It was a relationship that always stuck in my mind, although it had little influence on my research and teaching. Some of my research collaborators worked on phenotypic plasticity (different environmental conditions allowing the expression of different parts of the same genotype), so I had that idea, and could see how it applied to animals such as the arctic hare and the ptarmigan that change the colour of their coat/plumage from summer to winter as their environment changed from multicoloured to white. This is clearly under genetic control and requires changes in the physiology of each animal, driven by the influence of environmental cues. There are many more examples in the natural world.

The genotype-phenotype-environment relationship is of great interest to humans, although we may not know of it as such. While recognising that we are created by our genes, it is our phenotype that most interests us in Western countries - the way we look. Of course, we add to that by changing our external appearance frequently (unlike arctic hares and ptarmigans) by using clothes and other coverings. Much attention is given to the hair that grows on parts of our bodies and, recently, on body ornamentation in the form of tattoos. However, it is our shape, and the appearance of different body parts, that most affects us, as these are not easily changed in hours.

Unfortunately, not everyone is satisfied by their body and surgical procedures are used to change our phenotype. These include face lifts, breast enlargement or reduction, hair transplants, modifying parts of the face (like cheek bones and noses), and many others. Cosmetic surgery is invaluable after accidents or major illness, but the modification of appearance for vanity is narcissistic; yet so important to those that spend large sums of money on these procedures. Recently, a contestant on Love Island, a reality TV show in the UK, admitted to having extensive cosmetic interventions on various parts of her body; the cost being estimated at £25,000. She stated “I didn’t take all the decisions (about the operations, fillers, etc.) because I was trying to be a role model. I did it for me and no-one else.” [1]. In the article (see above) she didn’t explain why the results of the procedures made her feel better. The legendary Jocelyn Wildenstein probably spent a lot more on her surgical enhancement (see below) and she has stated that she is very pleased with the results, as she always wanted to look like a large cat. I have no idea whether she knows that others find her appearance monstrous.

In medicine, we are now looking to alter genotypes to prevent serious illnesses, or as a means of treating existing ones, with the exciting development of pharmacogenetics allowing drug treatments that are tailored to individuals. Very large sums of money, and much effort, go into this and the results in a few areas are highly promising. I wonder how long it will be before changing our genotype becomes an acceptable way of altering our phenotype and thus the way we look? It is unlikely to be soon, as so many genes are involved, and it may only be effective during early development, when adult features are beginning to form. Designer babies anyone?

At the opposite end of the age spectrum, we are also investing heavily in studies of ageing. Genetic engineering based on the results of these studies could promote an appearance of agelessness; replacing the cosmetics and cosmetic procedures on which we spend so much money. Then, if we can reduce the appearances of ageing, can we genetically engineer individuals to not age and thus not die? Surely that will never happen?

So, what of the third factor in the genotype-phenotype-environment relationship? We are mostly concerned with our social environment and, through research, in the environment within individuals. Our progressive destruction of the natural environment, a factor in both mental and physical health, might make selection of the phenotypes from altered genotypes irrelevant. But then, our interest is in humans, and the superficiality of humans, above all else.

[1] The i 2nd August 2018

Thursday, 2 August 2018

The power of religious conversion

A religious conversion is usually transformative. Having been brought up as a Christian, and having attended evangelistic rallies, I have often wondered what happens in people’s minds during that process. Some insights are given in “testimonies”, but these are often full of clich├ęs and not very helpful to understanding.

Jonathan Martin (above) gives a description of his conversion in his autobiography [1]:

The first Love feast [a gathering of Christians to share bread, water and prayer] that I attended was at Yarm; my soul was dismayed and filled with unbelief, and I wept sore and would not be comforted. My brethren fell on their knees and prayed with me, but their prayers were of no effect. I went home and went to bed sorrowful, not having found the blessing of which I had aforementioned dreamed..

..My religious friends were often enquiring if I felt the Witness of the Spirit, to which I replied that I did not and would not, till the time came.

At the end of five months, I took the Sacrament in the Church at Stockton, and leaving it at half past one o’clock, I hastened to Yarm, where the lovefeast was to commence at two o’clock. I had only had an hour to go four miles, but I was running for a prize, and was determined not to be late..

..I arrived before the first prayer was finished, and was not five minutes on my knees till the Lord set me at full liberty, and here too he shewed me that I had indeed met with the people among whom I must find my way to glory..

..The next night I was invited to a Prayer Meeting at Norton, the Room we occupied was nearly full, and while the Class Leader was giving out a Hymn, The Spirit of God came down in such abundance into my heart, that I was ready to leap over the Table for joy.

Clearly a profound, and transforming moment for Jonathan, but who was he and what were the consequences of his conversion?

Fenwick Martin, Jonathan’s father, was a tanner (but had many other jobs) and was known as an excellent swordsman. He eloped to Gretna Green with Isabella Thompson, the daughter of a landowner who did not approve of Fenwick, and they went on to have thirteen children, only five of which survived to adulthood [2]. The five children were all born in different towns and villages, a result of the itinerant lifestyle led by their parents. Fenwick loved travelling from place to place [2].

Jonathan was the third child - a sister and brother were to follow him – and he had a birth deformity, being tongue-tied. This was cured by cutting the membrane holding the tongue to the floor of the mouth when he was "in his sixth year", something that resulted in a speech impediment for the rest of Jonathan’s life [2]. This early experience must have troubled him, as his inability to speak as a young child meant that he was isolated and he often walked alone in the countryside. He was self-educated and could read and write, but he was apprenticed to a tanner in Hexham, following one of this father’s professions. He also took after his father in having wanderlust and he was determined to see something of the world when his apprenticeship ended in 1804. In London, he was press-ganged into the Royal Navy, serving on the H.M.S.Hercules (where he was amazed that the Captain ordered bands to play on a Sunday, offending his religious beliefs) before being transferred to another ship that had been captured as a prize. At Cadiz:

..he had many narrow escapes from the shore batteries, and this made him “begin to see his lost ruined state as a sinner, and to cry to God for mercy and salvation, hoping He would spare him to return to his native land, when he would join himself to the people of God”, i.e. the Wesleyan Methodists [2].

Shortly after, Jonathan jumped ship and sailed in a merchantman for Egypt and returned via Sicily to Portsmouth, where he was paid off. In this last journey, a rogue wave in the Bay of Biscay nearly sank the ship, a scene illustrated in Balston’s biography [2] (see below). From Portsmouth, Jonathan travelled to London and then back to the North-East of England where he returned to work as a tanner. He married in 1814 and had a son, Richard, who was named for one of Jonathan’s brothers.

We now reach the time when Jonathan went to the love-feast in Yarm and his conversion, as described in the autobiography. He went on to develop an intense dislike for the Church of England and his life became guided solely by messages from God, sometimes coming in dreams [2]:

The Wesleyan Methodists were so alarmed by his conduct that they expelled him from their Society, and Mr page [the tanner] dismissed him from his employment. But he felt the peace of God in his soul, and was not discouraged.

Over the next months he moved around to get work and maintained his hostility to preaching in the Church of England, even attempting to interrupt sermons. On hearing that the Bishop of Oxford was to hold a confirmation at Stockton, Jonathan decided to attend. He had previously borrowed an old, broken pistol from his eldest brother, which was discovered by his wife. On being asked what the old weapon was for, Jonathan replied that it was to be used to shoot the Bishop. His wife subsequently removed the pistol and Jonathan went to the service in Stockton without it – however, she reported Jonathan’s “intention” to the Church authorities and he was subsequently arrested and appeared before the Justices at Stockton who, on getting some typically strange answers to their questions, “ordered him to be confined in a madhouse for life”. Jonathan was then conveyed to the West Auckland lunatic asylum. 
Balston [2] gives us an account of Jonathan’s life in the asylum, where he suffered at the hands of both fellow inmates and, on occasion, from the asylum owner. He was transferred to the asylum at Gateshead, where he had an ambivalent relationship with the owners, just as he had at West Auckland, and eventually escaped from there via the roof (see above). Jonathan wandered through the countryside and was exhilarated at being free, visiting a distant relative of his mother, who made him welcome. Unfortunately, his wife had died of breast cancer in 1821, so he could not return to her and he travelled widely through the North of England and Scotland. Jonathan was able to earn some income as a tanner and from hawking copies of his autobiography while on his journeys. The first edition was published while Jonathan was in Darlington in 1825, a second being printed in Barnard Castle in 1826, with a third in Lincoln in 1828.

It was in Lincoln that he married Maria Hudson and Richard, who had been lodging with Jonathan, was then sent to a boarding school. Jonathan was readmitted to the Wesleyan Methodist Society and he retained the fervour, and convictions, so clear to him at the time of his conversion. With Maria, he travelled to York, arriving on 26th December 1828, and it was Jonathan’s activities in York that led to his widely-known notoriety. It began with a series of letters (all with Jonathan’s idiosyncratic spelling [that had been corrected in the autobiography]) attacking members of the clergy in the Church of England for their indulgent lifestyles and complacency, but none received a reply. Jonathan was further angered by this, stating [2]: “I found the Lord was determined to have me show this people a warning to flee from the wrath to come.” 

He devised a plan to carry out his threat and, on 1st February 1829, he entered York Minster and, after kneeling in prayer, was directed to go to the bell loft, where he remained when the Minster was locked up for the night. Balston [2] details what happened next and, in summary, these consisted of Jonathan gathering flammable materials and setting them alight – all guided by the reassurance and direction that he gained from God through prayer. He escaped though a window and the resultant blaze burned through the night, destroying part of the roof and the interior of the eastern part of the Minster, including the Archbishop’s throne.

After this disaster, a group of clergy and magistrates met to discuss how the fire occurred. They concluded quickly that the fire was the result of arson, the rope ladder used by Jonathan to climb to a window having been discovered, and the culprit was identified after questioning people who had met him. The letters were also produced and an arrest warrant for Jonathan was issued, with a reward of £100 for his capture. He was eventually tracked to Codlaw Hill and was taken to the “House of Correction” in nearby Hexham. From there he was taken to the jail in York and appeared before the Grand Jury at the Guildhall on 23rd March 1829, an event so popular that there was a melee over the available seats and it was agreed that a more fitting location would be the County Assizes, commencing on 30th March.  On being charged with setting fire to the Minster, Jonathan replied [2]: “It was not me, my Lord, but my God [that] did it.” The trial proceeded, with many witnesses who knew Jonathan being called; the letters he had written being admitted as evidence. The jury returned a verdict of “not guilty on the grounds of insanity”, with Jonathan detained during His Majesty’s pleasure. He was sent to London and was eventually confined in the Hospital of St Mary of Bethlehem (“Bedlam”), dying there in 1838, aged fifty-six.

Was Jonathan insane? There are many cases where people commit acts after praying, or believing that they are receiving a message from God. Does this mean that all those who act on such impulses are insane? Would Abraham have killed Isaac on the orders of God if an angel hadn’t intervened [3]? Did Jonathan Martin have a breakdown, as Matthew describes it in his biography [4]?  Do visions and these powerful religious impulses come from mental breakdowns? Does religious conversion follow a kind of breakdown, or heightened emotional state, where rational thought is suspended?  When does “hearing God” become “hearing voices”? I ask these questions as an atheist and I’m puzzled. 

[1] Jonathan Martin (1828) The Life of Jonathan Martin, of Darlington, Tanner (Third Edition). Lincoln, R.E.Leary.

[2] Thomas Balston (1945) The Life of Jonathan Martin, Incendiary of York Minster. London, Macmillan & Co.

[3] Genesis Chapter 22 in The Holy Bible.

[4] H.C.G.Matthew (2004) Martin, Jonathan (1782-1838). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

P.S. The preface to Balston’s biography of Jonathan Martin is written to Edith Sitwell who had published her English Eccentrics eleven years earlier in 1933. Did he feel that Jonathan would be a worthy candidate for entry into a future edition of Sitwell’s book?

Friday, 6 July 2018

A mammoth tooth from a submerged forest

The following, fascinating quote is from an 1865 paper by William Pengelly on “The submerged forests of Torbay” [1]:

A few years ago Mr C.E.Parker purchased an elephant’s tooth of some Brixham fishermen who had just taken it up in their trawl whilst fishing in Torbay.

The purchase took place in the 1850s and Pengelly describes how Dr Falconer of the Torquay Natural History Society identified the tooth as being that of a mammoth. He continues [1]:

Had this been a portion of an existing species it might have been supposed that it had been lost from or with some ship returning from India or Africa; but being a relic of an extinct animal it is obvious that it must have been dislodged from some geological deposit. That this was near at hand and that the fossil hade been exposed but a very short time may be safely inferred from the facts that it is entirely destitute of marks or traces of abrasion, and that there are no marine incrustations on its surface.. ..there can be no reasonable doubt that the trawl tore it out of a submarine part of the forest.

We know that the remnants of these forests are exposed occasionally by wave action, as can be seen in an excellent brochure published by Torquay Museum and available on the Web [2]. The appearance of these remnants must come as a surprise to all those who know Torbay as a holiday destination, with golden sandy beaches like those of Tor Abbey Sands, Goodrington Sands and Broadsands (see images below), all of which are named by Pengelly as having deposits to seaward that contain the remains of animals such as red deer, wild hogs, the long-fronted ox and the mammoth [1].

These beds then also extend inland, with surficial deposits overlying the clay and, according to Pidgeon [3] “most of the trees found prostrate in the forest-clay are.. ..willows.” The ancient forest is therefore likely to have been waterlogged from time to time and that promoted the deposition of organic and mineral particles that formed the clays. So, what we know as seaside and sea was, just a few thousand years ago, a region of swampy forest between rocky outcrops and these forests were habitats for many large animals.

Pengelly (above) was a distinguished geologist, famous for excavations in Kent’s Cavern in Torquay that contributed much to our knowledge of ancient cave faunas and the strata in which their remains were found. He was recognised widely by the scientific community, being made a Fellow of the Royal Society for his research, and maintained an active correspondence with many who shared his interests [4]. 

Pengelly lived in a house in the Upton area for many years, moving to Torquay from Looe in Cornwall and his house was named Lamorna, probably in honour of that region of his home county. He ran a school and was much involved with lectures and the work of the Torquay Natural History Society; the town being an important centre for the Nineteenth Century passion of Natural History, which included the study of rocks and fossils.

At the time of Pengelly’s paper, it was recognised that there had been an increase in sea level in the past few thousand years, and that this resulted in the submersion of the forest, but the rise was not linked actively to the melting of massive glaciers at the end of the last glaciated period ("Ice Age"); knowledge that we now take for granted. Coming 20 years after Pengelly’s paper, Pidgeon focused on whether the fossils found in the submerged forest beds were contemporaneous with early humans. We love anthropocentricity, and especially like the idea that our ancestors as modern humans co-existed with mammoths, these being such popular animals in our imagination. It is intriguing that complete bodies of these proboscideans have been found frozen in the permafrost of Siberia [5], but, unfortunately, Torbay mammoths have been much less well preserved.

[1] W. Pengelly (1865) The submerged forests of Torbay. Devonshire Association Transactions 1(4):30-42. [Published in 1866].

[3] D. Pidgeon (1885) On some recent discoveries in the submerged forest of Torbay. Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society 41:9-22.

[4] Hester Pengelly (1897) A Memoir of William Pengelly, of Torquay, F.R.S., Geologist, with a selection of his correspondence. London, John Murray.

[5] Adrian Lister and Paul Bahn (1995) Mammoths. London, Boxtree.