Tag Archives: History of Science

The scientific origins of the Dictator/Sitcom Character game

There’s a game where your computer will attempt to guess what dictator or sitcom character you’re thinking of. It’s based on a binary tree, where a series of questions about whether you’re thinking of this or that narrow down the number of possible solutions. You can use it to guess the names of dictators, but the same technique has been used to identify many other items. Using binary trees to make a dichotomous key can help you think about anything you want to classify. So for plants you could start by asking if it’s a flowering or non-flowering plant. If it is flowering does it produce one seed or many? This continues until you have a plant that is this and not that. It’s thought that Lamarck published the first dichotomous key for plants in 1778, but the Royal Society’s website suggests that Lamarck was building on work from a century earlier.

Illustration from British grasses and wildflowers by Richard Waller

Illustration from ‘British grasses and wildflowers by Richard Waller’ hosted by the Royal Society

Obviously Lamarck didn’t consult the Royal Society’s website. Instead the Royal Society have digitised British grasses and wildflowers by Richard Waller as part of their Turning the Pages project. Lawrence Griffing has had a close look at this in the paper Who Invented the Dichotomous Key? Richard Waller’s Watercolors of the Herbs of Britain in the American Journal of Botany. He’s found there’s more to the images than simply their looks.

There’s a question of how you choose what kind of branches to make. You could start by asking “Is this something you find in Larry’s garden, yes/no?”. It’s eccentric, but with enough questions you could eventually identify a plant. With evolution it becomes far more sensible to ask questions based on common descent, but Waller was working before there was a well-accepted theory of natural selection. What Waller could do though is observe the structure of plants closely. This is what he did. Griffing says what Waller was doing is something called a “linear leaf-ordering of hierarchical clusters”. This is a technique used today in Bioinformatics (and you can pick up free access to a paper on it from the journal Bioinformatics).

I’m wary of saying that a current technique is identical to Waller’s work from the early modern period. Further, Griffing’s paper shows that Waller’s work was not taken up by the Royal Society, so there’s no direct line between Waller’s clustering and modern clustering. However, the fact that Waller continued his work shows an intense interest in plant classification. Even if the Royal Society weren’t interested, it’s likely that Waller did have colleagues and acquaintances who had an interest in his work and methods.

There used to be a very Whiggish tendency in science history that what we know now is an inevitable consequence of what we knew then. If you think that then it becomes easy to pull out a single narrative tracking the single path to our current state. What Griffing’s paper shows is that it’s not always that neat a narrative.


Bar-Joseph Z., Gifford D.K. & Jaakkola T.S. (2001). Fast optimal leaf ordering for hierarchical clustering, Bioinformatics, 17 (Suppl 1) S22-S29. DOI:

Griffing L.R. (2011). Who invented the dichotomous key? Richard Waller’s watercolors of the herbs of Britain, American Journal of Botany, 98 (12) 1911-1923. DOI:


Illustration from ‘British grasses and wildflowers by Richard Waller’ hosted by the Royal Society.

Schrödinger’s History (TIME 100)

How can you say something is historically important or not unless you observe it? What happens if you set up conditions where you intentionally cannot observe a site’s historical importance?

I said in the opening post that some sites might have been chosen as a deliberate trolling for comment, and I think the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is one of them.

Entrance to the seed vault

Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Photo: Mari Tefre/Svalbard Global Seed Vault

The seed vault is set up in the event of a major regional or global catastrophe. They happen so it’s best to be prepared. I’m not sure exactly what side-effects a global catastrophe big enough to use it will have. If it has to be used then the stocking of the seed bank is a major historic event, but it’s probable that many historians of science will be too busy dying to notice. On the other hand a truly civilisation-destroying event like major asteroid strike could mean that the location of the bank and the ability to get there is lost. If nothing much happens then maybe it simply becomes a historic curiosity, like the defensive castles in England built to fight a Napoleonic invasion that never happened.

Even if it doesn’t need to be used it could still be a very shrewd choice for a historical site. The seeds are intended to be stored for hundreds of years. Crops change so effectively this is a time capsule of the early 21st century being kept for the future. It’s not unreasonable to think they will have historic value, and might even have uses for scientific experiments in the future. if you are going to have a site with historical value when should you start collecting evidence.

This hits a problem in history of science head-on. Obviously a lot of the historical evidence for an event is easiest to gather close in time to the event. Still, this gives you the least hindsight, are you too close to the event to appreciate what it is that historic? If you’re defining what is and isn’t important now are destroying what might prove significant in the future?

Of course funding councils have exactly the same problem. I don’t know if anyone has managed to run an experiment comparing the predictive capabilities of funding councils and science historians. If there has been one, please tell me about it. Or tell me what overlooked current event will be the major historical event of the future.

In search of the Platzgeist (TIME 100)

It’s easy to pin scientific credit on a person. He or she usually has a name on the key publication, but how do you credit a place? Science is a human activity, so is it just the humans that matter or are there things were place contributes as much as people? While I was kicking round this idea, Pat came up with a few places that he thought mattered.

Mendel's garden in St. Thomas's Abbey, Brno.

Mendel's garden in St. Thomas's Abbey, Brno.

The first website he pulled up was Biodiversity Hotspots. I’d never seen this before. It’s fascinating. I didn’t know the Irano-Anatolian region was a biodiversity hotspot. I’m more familiar with it from the development of early crops that eventually led to agriculture spreading across Europe. In terms of plant-life this is a disaster in progress. Orchid collection is threatening species throughout the region. Other eyecatchers are the halophile plants that have adapted to live the extremely salty conditions rendered hot and dry by the sun. There’s plenty of the site to look at, but I couldn’t find Mauritius listed.

I can’t work out whether Mauritius is a good choice or not. It’s an ecological catastrophe in progress at the moment, but there’s a lot of work saving species going on with tiny budgets. Work in Mauritius could make a difference around the world. Douglas Adams identified it as the place where humans first recognised they could make a creature extinct, when the last dodo was killed and there were going to be no more dodos ever. On his visit he also wrote the most amusing description of the near extinction of a plant.

We finally made it to Rodrigues, a small island dependency of Mauritius, to look for the world’s rarest fruitbat, but first of all we went to look at something that Wendy Strahm was very keen for us to see – so much so that she rearranged her regular Rodrigues-visiting schedule to take us there herself.

By the side of a hot and dusty road there was a single small bushy tree that looked as if it had been put in a concentration camp.

The plant was a kind of wild coffee called Ramus mania, and it had been believed to be totally extinct. Then, in 1981, a teacher from Mauritius called Raymond Aquis was teaching at a school in Rodrigues and gave his class pictures of about ten plants that were thought to be extinct on Mauritius.

One of the children put up his hand and said, ‘Please, sir, we’ve got this growing in our back garden.’

At first it was hard to believe, but they took a branch of it and sent it to Kew where it was identified. It was wild coffee.

The plant was standing by the side of the road, right by the traffic and in considerable danger because any plant in Rodrigues is considered fair game for firewood. So they put a fence round it to stop it being cut down.

Immediately they did this, however, people started thinking, ‘Aha, this is a special plant,’ and they climbed over the fence and started to take off little branches and leaves and pieces of bark. Because the tree was obviously special, everybody wanted a piece of it and started to ascribe remarkable properties to it – it would cure hangovers and gonorrhoea. Since not much goes on in Rodrigues other than home entertainments it quickly became a very sought-after plant, and it was rapidly being killed by having bits cut off it.

The first fence was soon rendered useless and a barbed wire fence was put around that. Then another barbed wire fence had to be put around the first barbed wire fence, and then a third barbed wire fence had to be put around the second till the whole compound covered a half acre. Then a guard was installed to watch the plant as well.

With cuttings from this one plant Kew Gardens is currently trying to root and cultivate two new plants, in the hope that it might then be possible to reintroduce them into the wild. Until they succeed, this single plant standing within its barbed wire barricades will be the only representative of its species on earth, and it will continue to need protecting from everyone who is prepared to kill it in order to have a small piece. It’s easy to think that as a result of the extinction of the dodo we are now sadder and wiser, but there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that we are merely sadder and better informed.

Last Chance to See, the book of the radio series.

It’s that last sentence that’s the problem with Mauritius. The dodo might be extinct, but has the extinction really changed anything? At the moment the rate of extinction is climbing, so it seems not.

Another place Pat suggested was St Thomas’s Abbey in Brno. This was where Mendel performed his experiments on peas. The cleverness of Mendel is in no doubt, but is the Abbey special? Could the work have happened elsewhere? It’s an unanswerable question, but it’s worth recognising the opportunities and demands that the abbey placed on Mendel would be very different to a university post. If you follow the extended mind hypothesis, is a place part of the cognitive process? There’s also a question of whether a connection needs to be that deep to be historic. Is it enough that something happened here first to make it noteworthy?

As an example of a place where ‘it happened here first’ might be enough, there’s Botany Bay in Australia. New Holland was known long before Cook’s arrival. The expedition in the South Seas had found many more plants and animals before landing at Botany Bay. Banks was a good botanist, but if another competent botanist had been on the trip they could have spotted the flora was different. The ship didn’t even need to arrive at that specific point in Australia to produce an event. If they’d landed a bit further north, there still would have been a shore of unseen plants. So if the botanist and place are interchangeable what is the attraction? I think it is entirely ‘it happened here first’. The contact event could have happened anywhere along the east coast but here is where it happened. It’s what encouraged the British government to start transporting convicts and even though Botany Bay was not a successful site (the settlement had to move to Sydney) it was the thing that pulled British colonisation into the region.

Clearly for Botany there are places that are simply special. Pat also mentioned the Last Stand of the Wollemi Pines as an importance place in Botanic History, though probably not quite as dramatically as that. Plants can make a place important but the possibility of a Platzgeist something like a spirit or an atmosphere of a place, like a zeitgeist situated in space rather than time, that makes a discovery in one place possible while it’s not in another is interesting – if I could define it in less vague terms.

Photo: Jardín donde trabajó mendel en Brno by Rafael Robles. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY licence.

The scale of science and history (TIME 100)

TIME has recently published 100 greatest places in the world. The book is a collection of sites that, the editors argue, have had the biggest impact on world history. It’s excellent blog material because hardly anyone has read it (including me), any list will be personal and omit something someone feels is important and, following what the press releases say, at least one of the choices is intentionally trolling for controversy.

The Galapagos Islands, iconic in the history of Evolutionary Theory, but is this the place it was discovered?

The other reason for blogging about it is that it raises some interesting questions about the nature of science and history. I’m opening what will be three blog posts this week with a question about scale. What sort of scale is appropriate for examining the history of science?

The scale might seem obvious and the only real question is to argue whether it’s marked BC/AD or BCE/CE. That’s a scale of time or duration. To flip the question what is the smallest measurable unit of history? Is the action of leaping from a bath and shouting ‘Eureka!’ the shortest possible historical event? At the other end of the scale is the eradication of polio, which hasn’t finished yet, one long historical event?

The idea of scale was something that concerned the Annales school of historians. They divided history into three phases which, very briefly, were: Événements, events that happened in a defined moment. The Long Durée, long generational change that made one era different to another. Conjoncture, a third class of cyclical events that to some extent occupy the middle ground.

These kind of approach to history wasn’t popular with the English-speaking historians who disliked the Annales school’s belief that it was the Long Durée that was the history that mattered and that events were comparatively speaking, froth. The same approach has been welcomed by English-speaking archaeologists who find a lot of depth in this form of history, especially as archaeology is often rubbish at dealing with events or cycles and is best suited to studying long-term change. It also means they tend to skim things like conjonctures, hence my woolly definition above.

The reason I bring it up is that scale is interesting. The idea of a place mattering tends to suit events, but is world-changing science more a long-term trend. TIME chooses the Galapagos Islands as one of their places, because of the connection with Charles Darwin. The study of finches on the islands is one of the iconic moments of Natural Selection, but is it a place that changed the history of the world?

I don’t think it is. The Charles Darwin is the major figure associated with the development of evolutionary theory he wasn’t the only person to find it. He wasn’t even the first. The reason Darwin is so strongly associated with Natural Selection is illustrated by a reply he gave when Patrick Matthew, who said he had preceded Darwin in discovering Natural Selection and published his work in the book Naval Timber and Arboriculture.

I freely acknowledge that Mr. Matthew has anticipated by many years the explanation which I have offered of the origin of species, under the name of natural selection. I think that no one will feel surprised that neither I, nor apparently any other naturalist, has heard of Mr. Matthew’s views, considering how briefly they are given, and that they appeared in the Appendix to a work on Naval Timber and Arboriculture. I can do no more than offer my apologies to Mr. Matthew for my entire ignorance of his publication. (Gardeners’ Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette, 16. 21 April 1860. pp 362-363.)

What makes Darwin’s contribution stand out is that he told people about Natural Selection by writing a whole book about it rather than sticking the idea in an appendix. The book wasn’t simply “Here’s something I saw in the Galapagos Islands” it was a comprehensive exploration of the concept with plenty of examples drawn on. So if a place is connected with Natural Selection, shouldn’t it be Down House, where he wrote the book?

Possibly, but even writing the book is not enough. Lots of people have written books. On the Origin of Species was picked up, read and debated. Huxley was known as Darwin’s bulldog for the way he promoted Natural Selection, is the key place perhaps the Natural History Museum in Oxford where Huxley met Wilberforce? Is it the many places around the world after that found things made much more sense if you accepted Natural Selection?

So is place a sensible concept for a world-changing idea or are we using the wrong scale to look at scientific history? It could simply be a case of looking at the wrong thing. Pat has brought up a question in the office: Is the place more important than the person and, if so, where? That’s the next entry.

Photo: Lonesome George Pinta giant tortoise Santa Cruz by Putneymark licenced under a Creative Commons BY-SA licence.