Archive for History

R.I.P. Asa Briggs (1921-2016)

Posted in History with tags , , on March 16, 2016 by telescoper

Asa Briggs (1921-2016)

The frivolity of yesterday’s post it’s time today for a piece of sad news. Eminent historian and distinguished former Vice Chancellor Asa Briggs (Lord Briggs of Lewes) has passed away at the age of 94.

There will be many others who can comment more meaningfully on his immense contribution to academic research, but it seems to me that Asa Briggs was a rare example of a historian whose work transcended the boundaries of academic research. Even an ignorant astrophysicist like me has read his marvellous Social History of England , for example. He was Vice Chancellor of Sussex University from 1967 until 1976, but when he retired from his post as Provost of Worcester College, Oxford, in 1991, he lived in Lewes which is just a few miles up the road from the Falmer campus so his association with the University remained strong.

Having twice been based at Sussex during my career I was of course familiar with Asa’s name and work but it wasn’t until two years ago that I finally got to meet him, at a Commemoration Dinner in the Royal Pavilion. For some reason I was seated next to him at this event and we talked about a wide range of subjects, including football. He was quite frail at that time, but full of good humour and very friendly. In short he was excellent company and clearly a very nice man.

Rest in Peace Asa Briggs (1921-2016).


“British physics” – A Lesson from History

Posted in History, Politics, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 13, 2016 by telescoper

The other day I came across the following tweet

The link is to an excellent piece about the history of European science which I recommend reading; as I do with this one.

I won’t pretend to be a historian but I can’t resist a comment from my perspective as a physicist. I am currently teaching a course module called Theoretical Physics which brings together some fairly advanced mathematical techniques and applies them to (mainly classical) physics problems. It’s not a course on the history of physics, but thenever I mention a new method or theorem I always try to say something about the person who gave it its name. In the course of teaching this module, therefore, I have compiled a set of short biographical notes about the people behind the rise of theoretical physics (mainly in the 19th Century). I won’t include them here – it would take too long – but a list  makes the point well enough: Laplace, Poisson,  Lagrange, Hamilton, Euler, Cauchy, Riemann, Biot, Savart, d’Alembert, Ampère, Einstein, Lorentz, Helmholtz, Gauss, etc etc.

There are a few British names too  including the Englishmen Newton and Faraday and the Scot Maxwell. Hamilton, by the way, was Irish. Another Englishman, George Green, crops up quite prominently too, for reasons which I will expand upon below.

Sir Isaac Newton is undoubtedly one of the great figures in the History of Science, and it is hard to imagine how physics might have developed without him, but the fact of the matter is that for a hundred years after his death in 1727 the vast majority of significant developments in physics took place not in Britain but in Continental Europe. It’s no exaggeration to say that British physics was moribund during this period and it took the remarkable self-taught mathematician George Green to breath new life into it.
I quote from History of the Theories of the Aether and Electricity (Whittaker, 1951) :

The century which elapsed between the death of Newton and the scientific activity of Green was the darkest in the history of (Cambridge) University. It is true that (Henry) Cavendish and (Thomas) Young were educated at Cambridge; but they, after taking their undergraduate courses, removed to London. In the entire period the only natural philosopher of distinction was (John) Michell; and for some reason which at this distance of time it is difficult to understand fully, Michell’s researches seem to have attracted little or no attention among his collegiate contemporaries and successors, who silently acquiesced when his discoveries were attributed to others, and allowed his name to perish entirely from the Cambridge tradition.

I wasn’t aware of this analysis previously, but it re-iterates something I have posted about before. It stresses the enormous historical importance of British mathematician and physicist George Green, who lived from 1793 until 1841, and who left a substantial legacy for modern theoretical physicists, in Green’s theorems and Green’s functions; he is also credited as being the first person to use the word “potential” in electrostatics.

Green was the son of a Nottingham miller who, amazingly, taught himself mathematics and did most of his best work, especially his remarkable Essay on the Application of mathematical Analysis to the theories of Electricity and Magnetism (1828) before starting his studies as an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge ,which he did at the age of 30. Lacking independent finance, Green could not go to University until his father died, whereupon he leased out the mill he inherited to pay for his studies.

Extremely unusually for English mathematicians of his time, Green taught himself from books that were published in France. This gave him a huge advantage over his national contemporaries in that he learned the form of differential calculus that originated with Leibniz, which was far more elegant than that devised by Isaac Newton (which was called the method of fluxions). Whittaker remarks upon this:

Green undoubtedly received his own early inspiration from . . . (the great French analysts), chiefly from Poisson; but in clearness of physical insight and conciseness of exposition he far excelled his masters; and the slight volume of his collected papers has to this day a charm which is wanting in their voluminous writings.

Great scientist though he was, Newton’s influence on the development of physics in Britain was not entirely positive, as the above quote makes clear. Newton was held in such awe, especially in Cambridge, that his inferior mathematical approach was deemed to be the “right” way to do calculus and generations of scholars were forced to use it. This held back British science until the use of fluxions was phased out. Green himself was forced to learn fluxions when he went as an undergraduate to Cambridge despite having already learned the better method.

Unfortunately, Green’s great pre-Cambridge work on mathematical physics didn’t reach wide circulation in the United Kingdom until after his death. William Thomson, later Lord Kelvin, found a copy of Green’s Essay in 1845 and promoted it widely as a work of fundamental importance. This contributed to the eventual emergence of British theoretical physics from the shadow cast by Isaac Newton. This renaissance reached one of its heights just a few years later with the publication a fully unified theory of electricity and magnetism by James Clerk Maxwell.

In a very real sense it was Green’s work that led to the resurgence of British physics during the later stages of the 19th Century, and it was the fact that he taught himself from French books that enabled him to bypass the insular attitudes of British physicists of the time. No physicist who has taken even a casual look at the history of their subject could possibly deny the immense importance of mainland Europe in providing its theoretical foundations.

Of course science has changed in the last two hundred years, but I believe that we can still learn an important lesson from this particular bit of history. Science moves forward when scientists engage with ideas and information from as wide a range of sources as possible, and it stagnates when it retreats into blinkered insularity. The European Union provides all scientific disciplines with a framework within which scientists can move freely and form transnational collaborations for the mutual benefit of all. We need more of this, not less. And not just in science.




Operation Varsity

Posted in History with tags , , , , on March 24, 2015 by telescoper

Today provides me with an occasion for a short post in a very irregular series marking the momentous events that unfolded seventy years ago.

At 1000 hours on 24th March 1945, nine battalions of the 6th British Airborne Division together with six from 17th US Airborne Division began landing on the German (east) side of the River Rhine, near Wesel. This was the last mass parachute and glider assault of the Second World War, and was designed to pierce the final great physical barrier to a ground advance into Nazi Germany. It was codenamed Operation Varsity.


The airborne troops were given the task of seizing and holding high ground overlooking a stretch of the Rhine which was to be crossed by elements of the British 21st Army Group, which included the British Second Army. The airborneassault involved 540 aircraft towing 1300 gliders into heavy anti-aircraft fire, so casualties during the first phase of the operation were heavy. However, within six hours of the commencement of the operation, all objectives were taken and the airborne troops subsequently linked up with ground forces who had crossed the river in assault boats in what was known as Operation Plunder.

This was all a part of a coordinated series of airborne and amphibious attacks by British, Canadian and American forces that began overnight on 23rd March 1945 and went on during the morning of 24th March 1945. The Applied troops, crossing the River Rhine in large numbers and beginning a rapid advance into Germany. By 27 March, they had established a bridgehead 35 miles (56 km) wide and 20 miles (32 km) deep.

Following the link-up with the ground troops, the 6th Airborne led  a 300 mile advance through Germany, marching approximately 11 miles per day until they managed to capture enough enemy transport. Second Army reached the Weser on 4 April, the Elbe on 19 April, the shore of the Baltic Sea at Lübeck on 2 May. On 3 May, Hamburg capitulated. By 7 May the Soviet Army had met up with the British forces at the Baltic port of Wismar.

I mention this because one of the troops that crossed the Rhine the British Second Army that day was a new recruit, a young man by the name of Richard Shaw, my mother’s brother. He took part in the subsequent advance through Germany and spent most of the year after the end of the Second World War stationed in Hamburg. He died just a few years ago, after a fall in his home, at the age of 85.

Lest we forget.

Doodlebug Summer

Posted in History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 10, 2014 by telescoper

Yesterday’s post reminded me of another aspect of World War 2 that is worth mentioning. There’s a general impression that the defeat of Nazi Germany was more-or-less inevitable after the Normandy invasion of June 1944. However, as I mentioned yesterday, the Allied advance was much slower than expected and it was not until mid-August that the British, Canadian and American divisions really broke through. Morale back home wasn’t helped by this slow progress, but the most significant factor for the civilian population, especially in London, for the period June to August 1944 was the arrival of a new form of weapon; for many, the summer 1944 was “Doodlebug Summer”.

First came the V1 “Flying Bomb” (or “doodlebug”). The first of these to fall on London hit the railway bridge at Grove Road in Bow, East London, on 13th June 1944. This is just a few hundred yards North of Mile End tube station, and close to where I used to work at Queen Mary College, University of London. I don’t think people realize the scale of the threat these terror weapons posed. For a start they were launched in considerable numbers, usually over a hundred a day and over 8000 in total during the course of the summer. These weapons caused 22,892 (mainly civilian) casualties and causing widespread damage to the city’s infrastructure. Looking through the War Office minutes for the week corresponding to this one, seventy years ago, yields a typical statistic: 768 Flying Bombs were launched, 158 landed over London, 462 were destroyed.

These numbers however, convey only part of the picture. The doodlebug was primarily a terror weapon; it struck fear into the hearts of the population though the distinctive sound of its primitive jet engine – fear would immediately transform into alarm when the engine cut out, for that was when the device would fall to Earth and detonate. On the one hand, this did at least give some warning to those in its path but, on the other, it made it impossible for the authorities to disguise the nature of the threat. The V1 was relatively slow (640 km/h, i.e. about 400 mph) and flew at quite a low altitude, which meant that many were downed by ground-based anti-aircraft guns or fighter aircraft fast enough to intercept them, but sufficient numbers still got through to cause considerable panic. The onslaught was only halted in September 1944 when the advancing Allies overran the launch sites in France. Although attacks resumed in due course from other launch sites, the scale of the threat was greatly diminished.

Later on, from September 1944 onwards, the V2 rocket was introduced; this travelled on a ballistic trajectory and gave no warning whatsoever; no gun or aircraft could possibly shoot it down. To begin with the authorities attempted to explain the succession of mysterious explosions as being due to fault gas mains, etc. There never was an effective defence against the V2, but fortunately they were rather unreliable and the number of casualties they caused, though considerable, was not on the same scale as the V1.

Another interesting aspect of the doodlebug attacks was the deception campaign run by British Intelligence, which involved a famous double-agent code-named Garbo. This was the agent behind the audacious deception plan that led the Nazi High Command to believe that the Normandy landings were a decoy to draw attention away from the main landings which would happen in the Pas de Calais. As part of this ruse, Garbo (whom the Germans believed was working for them) actually sent news of the Normandy landings to his handlers by radio. This staggeringly risky gambit could have ended in disaster, but the Germans swallowed the bait: an entire division was kept away from Normandy, waiting for the expected assault in Pas de Calais, which of course never came.

In mid-June 1944 Garbo was asked by his handlers to report on the locations of V1 impacts. The guidance system on the doodlebug was very crude and the Germans had no real idea whether they were systematically overshooting or falling short of London. Could some form of deception plan be concocted that could work in this case? The obvious strategy would be to report that V1s falling on London were falling too far North; if the Germans believed this then they would adjust the settings so they fell further South, and would then miss London. However, some doodlebugs hit high-profile targets so there was little point lying about them – Garbo would immediately be exposed. Moreover, some V1s were fitted with radio transmitters and the Germans knew exactly where they were landing. In the end it was decided that Garbo would simply report (accurately) only those V1 impacts that happened to the North West of London, hoping that the selection bias in these reports would be misinterpreted as a systematic error in the aiming of the V1s. From Ultra decrypts from the code-breakers at Bletchley Park, the Allies knew what was believed by the Germans and what was not and adjusted the flow of information accordingly.

If 1944 seems sufficiently remote for this all just to be a fascinating piece of history, it is worth remembering that the V1 “Terror Weapon” was the forerunner of the modern US combat drones that have killed many hundreds of civilians in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia in covert attacks as part of the so-called “War on Terror”. Think about the irony of that for a moment.

A Potted Prehistory of Cosmology

Posted in History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 26, 2012 by telescoper

A few years ago I was asked to provide a short description of the history of cosmology, from the dawn of civilisation up to the establishment of the Big Bang model, in less than 1200 words. This is what I came up with. Who and what have I left out that you would have included?


 Is the Universe infinite? What is it made of? Has it been around forever?  Will it all come to an end? Since prehistoric times, humans have sought to build some kind of conceptual framework for answering questions such as these. The first such theories were myths. But however naïve or meaningless they may seem to us now, these speculations demonstrate the importance that we as a species have always attached to thinking about life, the Universe and everything.

Cosmology began to emerge as a recognisable scientific discipline with the Greeks, notably Thales (625-547 BC) and Anaximander (610-540 BC). The word itself is derived from the Greek “cosmos”, meaning the world as an ordered system or whole. In Greek, the opposite of “cosmos” is “chaos”. The Pythagoreans of the 6th century BC regarded numbers and geometry as the basis of all natural things. The advent of mathematical reasoning, and the idea that one can learn about the physical world using logic and reason marked the beginning of the scientific era. Plato (427-348 BC) expounded a complete account of the creation of the Universe, in which a divine Demiurge creates, in the physical world, imperfect representations of the structures of pure being that exist only in the world of ideas. The physical world is subject to change, whereas the world of ideas is eternal and immutable. Aristotle (384-322 BC), a pupil of Plato, built on these ideas to present a picture of the world in which the distant stars and planets execute perfect circular motions, circles being a manifestation of “divine” geometry. Aristotle’s Universe is a sphere centred on the Earth. The part of this sphere that extends as far as the Moon is the domain of change, the imperfect reality of Plato, but beyond this the heavenly bodies execute their idealised circular motions. This view of the Universe was to dominate western European thought throughout the Middle Ages, but its perfect circular motions did not match the growing quantities of astronomical data being gathered by the Greeks from the astronomical archives made by the Babylonians and Egyptians. Although Aristotle had emphasised the possibility of learning about the Universe by observation as well as pure thought, it was not until Ptolemy’s Almagest, compiled in the 2nd Century AD, that a complete mathematical model for the Universe was assembled that agreed with all the data available.

Much of the knowledge acquired by the Greeks was lost to Christian culture during the dark ages, but it survived in the Islamic world. As a result, cosmological thinking during the Middle Ages of Europe was rather backward. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) seized on Aristotle’s ideas, which were available in Latin translation at the time while the Almagest was not, to forge a synthesis of pagan cosmology with Christian theology which was to dominated Western thought until the 16th and 17th centuries.

The dismantling of the Aristotelian world view is usually credited to Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543).  Ptolemy’s Almagest  was a complete theory, but it involved applying a different mathematical formula for the motion of each planet and therefore did not really represent an overall unifying system. In a sense, it described the phenomena of heavenly motion but did not explain them. Copernicus wanted to derive a single universal theory that treated everything on the same footing. He achieved this only partially, but did succeed in displacing the Earth from the centre of the scheme of things. It was not until Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) that a completely successful demolition of the Aristotelian system was achieved. Driven by the need to explain the highly accurate observations of planetary motion made by Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), Kepler replaced Aristotle’s divine circular orbits with more mundane ellipses.

The next great development on the road to modern cosmological thinking was the arrival on the scene of Isaac Newton (1642-1727). Newton was able to show, in his monumental Principia (1687), that the elliptical motions devised by Kepler were the natural outcome of a universal law of gravitation. Newton therefore re-established a kind of Platonic level on reality, the idealised world of universal laws of motion. The Universe, in Newton’s picture, behaves as a giant machine, enacting the regular motions demanded by the divine Creator and both time and space are absolute manifestations of an internal and omnipresent God.

Newton’s ideas dominated scientific thinking until the beginning of the 20th century, but by the 19th century the cosmic machine had developed imperfections. The mechanistic world-view had emerged alongside the first stirrings of technology. During the subsequent Industrial Revolution scientists had become preoccupied with the theory of engines and heat. These laws of thermodynamics had shown that no engine could work perfectly forever without running down. In this time there arose a widespread belief in the “Heat Death of the Universe”, the idea that the cosmos as a whole would eventually fizzle out just as a bouncing ball gradually dissipates its energy and comes to rest.

Another spanner was thrown into the works of Newton’s cosmic engine by Heinrich Olbers (1758-1840), who formulated in 1826 a paradox that still bears his name, although it was discussed by many before him, including Kepler. Olbers’ Paradox emerges from considering why the night sky is dark. In an infinite and unchanging Universe, every line of sight from an observer should hit a star, in much the same way as a line of sight through an infinite forest will eventually hit a tree. The consequence of this is that the night sky should be as bright as a typical star. The observed darkness at night is sufficient to prove the Universe cannot both infinite and eternal.

Whether the Universe is infinite or not, the part of it accessible to rational explanation has steadily increased. For Aristotle, the Moon’s orbit (a mere 400,000 km) marked a fundamental barrier, to Copernicus and Kepler the limit was the edge of the Solar System (billions of kilometres away). In the 18th and 19th centuries, it was being suggested that the Milky Way (a structure now known to be at least a billion times larger than the Solar System) to be was the entire Universe. Now it is known, thanks largely to Edwin Hubble (1889-1953), that the Milky Way is only one among hundreds of billions of similar galaxies.

The modern era of cosmology began in the early years of the 20th century, with a complete re-write of the laws of Nature. Albert Einstein (1879-1955) introduced the principle of relativity in 1905 and thus demolished Newton’s conception of space and time. Later, his general theory of relativity, also supplanted Newton’s law of universal gravitation. The first great works on relativistic cosmology by Alexander Friedmann (1888-1925), George Lemaître (1894-1966) and Wilhem de Sitter (1872-1934) formulated a new and complex language for the mathematical description of the Universe.

But while these conceptual developments paved the way, the final steps towards the modern era were taken by observers, not theorists. In 1929, Edwin Hubble, who had only recently shown that the Universe contained many galaxies like the Milky way, published the observations that led to the realisation that our Universe is expanding. That left the field open for two rival theories, one (“The Steady State”, with no beginning and no end)  in which matter is continuously created to fill in the gaps caused by the cosmic expansion and the other in which the whole shebang was created, in one go, in a primordial fireball we now call the Big Bang.

Eventually, in 1965, Arno Penzias and Robert  Wilson discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation, proof (or as near to proof as you’re likely to see) that our Universe began in a  Big Bang…

The Knife Man

Posted in History, Literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 9, 2011 by telescoper

It looks set to be the proverbial wet weekend here in Cardiff and I’m waiting for a pause in the rain before going out to do my Saturday shopping. Having done the crossword already, I should be cleaning the house but instead I thought I’d post a quick comment about the fascinating book I’ve just finished reading.

The Knife Man, by Wendy Moore, is an account of “The Extraordinary Life and Times of John Hunter, Father of Modern Surgery”. It’s a measure of my ignorance about medical history that I didn’t even know who John Hunter was when I started reading this, although I had heard of the Hunterian Museum without realising who it was named after.

I won’t give a lengthy account of Hunter’s biography; that’s done very well elsewhere on the net and indeed in the book, which I thoroughly recommend. It is worth emphasizing, however, what a remarkable man he was. Born in Scotland in 1728, he didn’t go to University and received no formal medical training. He went to London in 1748 in order to become assistant to his brother William, a noted surgeon at the time. John’s primary rsponsibility was to help with the dissection of human cadavers during William’s anatomy classes. He soon became fascinated by anatomy and himself became extremely adept at dissection. He received some medical training in London, had a spell as an army surgeon and eventually set up a private medical practice in London at which he ran his own anatomy classes for paying students. He became one of the top surgeons in London and attended to the needs of many prominent Georgian figures, including King George III.

But, as impressive as it was, his medical career wasn’t the most remarkable thing about Hunter’s life. His interests extended far beyond human anatomy and from an early age he was an avid collector of all sorts of animals, alive and dead. As he became wealthier through his medical practice and lectures he spent increasing amounts of cash on acquiring rare specimens, which he usually dissected in order to understand them better. He also collected specimens of diseased human organs, bones, and fossils. There was a very dark side to this work too. The grisly business of acquiring fresh human human corpses led him to make connections with graverobbers. Worse, he also experimented on human specimens, usually members of London’s poor. He did pay them for their pains, but that’s hardly the point.

Hunter’s studies led him to conclude – years before Darwin – that species were not fixed and immutable but that animal populations altered over time, with some creatures becoming extinct. Although he doesn’t seem to have used the word “evolution”, his work in this area was certainly heading in that direction. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1767.

Above all I think what stands out about Hunter was that he pioneered the use of the scientific method in the field of medicine. His lack of formal training meant that he wasn’t steeped in the dogma or orthodox medicine which had led to many bizarre and/or dangerous practices. One wonders what chain of reasoning had led doctors to suppose that pumping tobacco smoke into a patient’s anus using specially constructed bellows could possibly have any therapeutic value!

Hunter learned primarily from experience. He knew, for example, that major surgery in Georgian times was very likely to kill the patient. There were no anaesthetics, so death by shock was a strong possibility. Loss of blood was a danger, too, unless the operation was completed extremely quickly. Moreover, doctors at the time – Hunter included – had no idea about how infections were spread and surgeons would often operate with instruments encrusted with the blood of previous victim. In the (unlikely) event of a patient surviving the agony of, say, an amputation, they would probably die of  some form of infection within a few days anyway. Hunter’s policy in the light of all this was to refuse to operate unless the situation was truly desperate.

For example, when Hunter was an army surgeon, the prevailing attitude to gunshot wounds was that the bullet had to be removed at all costs. Moreover, it was believed that gunpowder was poisonous, so entry wounds were usually “enlarged” to remove tissue that had been blackened or burnt. One day, a group of British soldiers had come under fire and several had been badly injured. They escaped the ambush and holed up in a farmhouse, where they were found a few days later. One had two bullets in his thigh, another had one in his chest. However, although seriously ill, all were still alive. Hunter knew that if men in that condition had been brought into his field hospital and operated on in the usual manner, they would all almost certainly have died. After this experience Hunter was extremely reluctant to operate at all on battlefield injuries unless they were immediately life-threatening, and often decided to let nature take its course with flesh wounds.

The Knife Man contains many more examples of Hunter’s pionering use of empirical evidence in medicine and, as such, is well worth reading by anyone interested in the scientific method. It also provides a fascinating insight into life in Georgian London. Notable characters appear in extremely unexpected ways in Hunter’s story:

  • James Boswell made frequent visits to Covent Garden  in order to the employ the services of local prostitutes, which was apparently quite normal for Georgian gentry, as was the consequence – a lifelong problem with gonorrhea, which Hunter tried to treat him for.
  • Hunter attended the birth of George Gordon (later Lord) Byron, who was born with a congenital deformity,  possibly a club foot. Hunter told his mother that it could probably be cured if he wore a specially constructed boot during infancy, but she didn’t take his advice.
  • Joseph Haydn was a frequent visitor to the Hunter residence during his time in London; he even wrote set some poems by Anne Hunter (John’s wife) to music. There were rumours of an affair, in fact. He also suffered from a nasal polyp, about which he sought Hunter’s advice. When the nature of the required surgery was explained to him, Haydn decided not to have it operated on.

I could give more examples, but that’s 1000 words, and it’s now sunny outside, so you’ll have to go and read the book, which I  recommend heartily. However, I really should point out that it’s not for the squeamish. The primitive surgical procedures deployed in the 18th Century are described in excrutiating detail and parts of the book make for very uncomfortable reading. If you don’t think you can cope with a detailed account of an operation, without anaesthetic,  to remove stone from a patient’s bladder, then perhaps this isn’t a book for you!


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