Books of interest

A couple of years ago, Wall street Journal asked me to list some books that influenced me.  Here they are!

John Irving, The Cider House Rules
Like all of John Irving’s novels, The Cider House Rules is both entertaining and sometimes disconcerting, dealing with serious issues – in this case, abortion and incest – but still containing passages that make you laugh out loud.  The film was good, but, as is so often the case, the book is far superior.  The saga of Homer Wells, from his time as the eldest, unwanted resident of the orphanage run by Wilbur Larch through his attempt to break away into the world outside and his inevitable return to take up his destiny as the successor to Dr Larch also manages to embrace social history and evoke a feeling of time and place that is outstanding.  I alternate between picking this and A Prayer For Owen Meany as my favourite novel; this week, it’s The Cider House Rules.

Charles Darwin, Origin of Species (First Edition)
Quite apart from its scientific importance, this is a beautifully written book that begs the question why scientists today are so much less literate, by and large, than their nineteenth century predecessors.  Darwin was an avid reader of his contemporaries, such as George Eliot and Charles Dickens, and it shows.  Just look at the famous opening lines:  “When on board HMS Beagle, as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the inhabitants of South  America  .  .  .  These facts seemed to me to throw some light on the origin of species.”  Who can fail to be sucked in and want to read on?  The fact that natural selection is probably the most important scientific discovery of all time is simply a bonus!

Evelyn Waugh, Scoop
I was lucky enough to work as a journalist in London, writing for The Times, in the last years of the old Fleet Street, when articles were still set up in metal type by specialist machine operators, stories were ’phoned in and taken down on manual typewriters, and old hacks with tales of grand expense account lunches could be found in the bars nearby.  To anyone who experienced this faded glory, Scoop, although funny in its own right, gains an exquisite extra flavour by being so very nearly an accurate portrayal of what might have happened to a naive reporter sent out to cover a war in Africa.  Rightly regarded as a classic; but if anyone is unfortunate enough not to know it, imagine Bertie Wooster being sent on such a task.

C. P. Snow, The Search
This is not the best novel ever written – it isn’t even C P Snow’s best novel (even Snow felt that The Search, written in 1934, was “a false start”); but I have a soft spot for the absorbing story of Arthur Miles, from sub-teenage years to his early thirties, which deals with his initial devotion to, and later abandonment of, science.  The early part of the story echoed some of my feelings – although I have never suffered Miles’ disillusionment.  In particular, my first encounter with quantum physics is aptly summed up by some lines from Snow:  “I saw a medley of haphazard facts fall into line and order  .  .  .  ‘But it’s true,’ I said to myself.  ‘It’s very beautiful.  And it’s true.’”  I still feel that way about science.

William Gilbert, On the Loadstone and Magnetic Bodies (translation of the 1600 edition of De Magnete)
William Gilbert of Colchester was the first person to set out clearly in print the essence of the scientific method of testing hypotheses by experiment.  He also made discoveries in the field of magnetism that were not improved on for two centuries, and he wrote a book on magnetism, published in 1600 when Shakespeare was the toast of London, which is a great read and hugely entertaining even if you care nothing about science.  “In the discovery of hidden things,” he wrote, “stronger reasons are obtained from sure experiments and demonstrated arguments than from probable conjectures and the opinions of philosophical speculators  .  .  .  ” and he railed against the “lettered clowns, grammatists, sophists, spouters and the wrong-headed rabble” who attempted to unravel the mysteries of the Universe solely by thinking about them, without doing experiments.

Robert Hooke, Micrographia
The first great scientific book written in English, beautifully illustrated (many of the drawings were by Hooke’s friend Christopher Wren) and easily accessible for the layman.  Samuel Pepys got an early copy and sat up reading it until 2 am, writing in his diary that it was “the most ingenious book that ever I read in my life.”  Hooke not only described the microscopic world, but also astronomy, geology and the nature of light, setting out ideas which Isaac Newton later lifted and passed off as his own.  For centuries in Newton’s shadow, Hooke is now rightly regarded as Newton’s equal in everything except mathematical prowess.  He was the rock on which the early success of the Royal Society of London was built – and he wrote much more entertainingly than Newton.

John Tyndall, Fragments of Science
The Irish scientist and writer John Tyndall is almost forgotten today, but in the nineteenth century he was in effect the first science populariser, and his lectures in the United States drew crowds as large as those for Charles Dickens.  The fortune he made from those lectures was used to set up a fund for the advancement of American science.  A contemporary biographer wrote “Prof. Tyndall occupies the foremost place among his contemporaries, his only rival being his friend, Prof. Huxley [‘Darwin’s Bulldog,’ Thomas Henry Huxley].”   Tyndall was a prolific author, but Fragments of science for unscientific people, published in 1871, is probably his best book.  It covers topics ranging from the nature of heat and light to spectroscopy, a voyage to Algeria to observe an eclipse, glaciology, and the composition of the Sun.

Richard Feynman, Six Easy Pieces
Something of a self-indulgence to conclude with.  One of the biggest influences on my scientific career, and later my career as a populariser of science, was the multi-volume Feynman Lectures on Physics which appeared in the early 1960s.  This epitome of that masterwork really does offer an easy guide to what physics, and science in general, is all about.  Feynman explores the most fundamental scientific theories that all intelligent people should be aware of – the structure and behaviour of atoms, quantum mechanics and gravity. These fundamentals that ought to be as well known as Shakespeare, Mozart and Picasso.  The material is essentially a transcript of Feynman lecturing (you can even get the lectures themselves on a CD to accompany the book), and comes across like a wise friend giving you the inside story on a subject he loves.  More than three and a half centuries after William Gilbert, Feynman never missed an opportunity to hammer home what remains the most fundamental feature of science – no matter how much you may love your pet idea, no matter how beautiful it is mathematically, “if it disagrees with experiment, then it is wrong!”  Anyone who thinks differently must be among the “lettered clowns, grammatists, sophists, spouters and the wrong-headed rabble”

Robert FitzRoy

The forgotten man of Norwood

The name of one of Norwood’s former residents is broadcast several times a day, every day of the year, by BBC radio; but even in Norwood, let alone the world at large, few people know who he was and why he should be honoured in this way.  The name is Fitzroy, given to the sea area formerly known as Finisterre in 2002, and broadcast repeatedly in the shipping forecast on Radio 4 long wave.  The man was Robert FitzRoy (with a capital “R”), and if you have heard of him, you may know that he was Captain of the Beagle when it carried Charles Darwin on the voyage which inspired him to come up with the theory of evolution by natural selection.  But what has that got to do with weather forecasting, or Norwood?

     FitzRoy was, in fact a brilliant seaman and navigator.  Born in 1805, the year of the Battle of Trafalgar, he joined the Navy at the age of twelve, and the Darwin voyage, from 1831 to 1836, was actually his second in command of the Beagle, surveying the difficult waters around Cape Horn in all kinds of weather.  On his return to England, after completing the tedious paper work involved in putting all his observations in order, he served as an MP for Durham, and then became the second Governor of New Zealand.

     Recalled to England for political reasons, he was put in charge of fitting out the Royal Navy’s first screw-driven steamship, and became its first Captain.  But throughout his career, ever since experiencing the fierce storms off Cape Horn, he had been a keen student of the weather, and had always carried at least two barometers when at sea, being one of the first people to realise that falling pressure was a sign of a storm to come.  In 1854, he was offered a job that could have been tailor made for him – as head of what would become the Meteorological Office.

     With a tiny staff, FitzRoy began to collect statistics on the weather (his original  title was “Meteorological Statist”), and to use the knowledge he had gained from years at sea to the benefit of others.  He set up a chain of observing stations around the coast of Britain, reporting to London via the new electric telegraph the local weather conditions each morning.  From these observations, FitzRoy was able to predict the likely occurrence of storms, and issue warnings, sent out by telegraph to the key ports, where storm warning signals would be hoisted for all sailors to see.

     But this was not enough.  Far ahead of his time, by the early 1860s FitzRoy was issuing weather forecasts for the entire country.  Indeed, he invented the term “weather forecast,” as well as the term “synoptic chart” (since they provide a synopsis of weather conditions) for weather maps.  The forecasts, though not the maps, were published daily in The Times.  All of the work of processing the data was done, of course, “by hand,” using pen and paper to carry out the laborious calculations that would nowadays be done in seconds on a computer.    By the standards of the Victorian civil service, FitzRoy was a lenient superior, and obtained special permission for his clerks to have alternate Saturday afternoons off.  But he was far less lenient with himself.

     FitzRoy worked whatever hours it took to finish his official duties, but he was scrupulously careful never to do any private work – not even writing a letter – during office hours.  In his so-called spare time he wrote en epic book, The Weather Book, which was published in 1862.  And ever since 1859, when Darwin had published his Origin of Species, FitzRoy, a deeply religious conventional Christian, had been tormented by his role in unleashing what he saw as this sinful idea upon the world.

     On top of all this, the Government, as short-sighted then as now, began to complain that his weather forecasts were a waste of money, and even though The Times continued to publish those forecasts, the leader columns took to making ponderous jokes when, as was inevitable, the forecasts often proved inaccurate.

     With FitzRoy worn down by overwork, depressed by the criticism and troubled by the spread of evolutionary ideas, at the end of 1864 his wife Maria moved the family out to the quiet suburb of Norwood, to try to get him to rest.  But even though he was officially on sick leave, every time FitzRoy felt a little better he went back in to the office, where he worked until he could do no more, then collapsed at home for a few days.  As it turned out, his last official act was to send a forecast to Queen Victoria for a proposed crossing to the Isle of Wight.  On Sunday, 30 April 1865, a few weeks short of his own 60th birthday, Robert FitzRoy got up early, kissed his sleeping daughter, went into his bathroom and cut his throat.

     It was only after his death that the true value of FitzRoy’s work, especially in setting up the storm warning system, became clear, and almost as soon as the importance of his weather forecasting efforts became clear the name of the man who had pioneered their development was more or less forgotten.  But he was one of the great Victorian pioneers who helped to shape our world, and far more than merely “Darwin’s Captain.”


Henry Cavendish

No special reason for posting this.  Except that he deserves to be better known!


Henry Cavendish (1731-1810) was an English scientist who made pioneering investigations in chemistry and used a torsion balance experiment, devised by John Michell, to make the first accurate measurements of the mean density of the Earth and the strength of the gravitational constant.  He also carried out pioneering work on electricity, but much of his work was not published in his lifetime, and only became widely known when Cavendish’s papers were edited and published by James Clerk Maxwell in 1879.

     Cavendish could afford not to publish his results, because he did not have to make a living out of science.  Born on 10 October, 1731, at Nice, in France, Cavendish was the son of Lord Charles Cavendish, and grandson of the both 2nd Duke of Devonshire (on his father’s side) and the Duke of Kent (on his mother’s side).  His father, himself a Fellow of the Royal Society, was administrator of the British Museum.  Henry Cavendish studied at Cambridge University from 1749 to 1753, but left without taking a degree (not particularly unusual in those days), and studied in Paris for a year before settling in London.  He lived off his private fortune, and devoted his time to the study of science.  Apart from his scientific contacts, he was reclusive, and published little, although he used some of his money to found a library, open to the public, located well away from his home.  He was once described as “the richest of the learned, and the most learned of the rich.”

     Among his unpublished discoveries, Cavendish anticipated Ohm’s Law and much of the work of Michael Faraday and Charles Coulomb.  He also showed that gases could be weighed, and that air is a mixture of gases, not a pure substance.

     Cavendish died on 28 February 1810, and left more than a million pounds in his will.  The famous Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, named after Henry Cavendish, was founded in 1871 with funds provided by the 7th Duke of Devonshire, a relative of Cavendish and himself a talented mathematician.