Giants’ Shoulders #52: Loads More Heroes

I find myself in the potentially awkward position of hosting both (a) the 52nd edition of the Giants' Shoulders history of science blog carnival, and (b) a long-standing Charles Darwin fan club, in a month when the very notion of scientific heroes has been coming under quite a bit of flak in the history of science blogosphere. Great timing, chaps. Thanks. None taken. No pressure whatsoever!

Thony C of the Renaissance Mathematicus blog set the ball rolling last month with his post No more heroes anymore, which he followed up with this footnote. Then Athene Donald weighed in, asking Heroic Genius or a Distraction from Reality?, followed by Rebekah Higgitt of The H Word, who explained why Whiggish interpretations of history won't do. All great stuff.

In this self-confessed Darwin groupie's defence, however, I would contend that, once we abandon naive, Whiggish accounts of ‘lone heroes’ of science, and realise that, as Thony points out, ‘all of them were dependent on the work of others and not just the proverbial giants on whose shoulders Newton claimed to stand’, we end up with loads more heroes of science. Or so I reckon. Hence the title of this month's carnival.

So, on to the heroes (a couple of whom, I must confess, were new to me):

Alfred Russel Wallace has been receiving plenty of much-deserved coverage in the lead-up to next year's centenary of his death. In the last few weeks, we have read about his great drama at sea, of the Linnean Society's plans to publish his notebooks online, and of the launch of an unrelated project, Wallace Online, which plans to make all of his publications available on the web. They're even campaigning for a statue of him at London's Natural History Museum.

Elsewhere, Thony C explains why the 16th-century Spanish mathematicus and physicus Michael Servetus was not a martyr for science; Sam Kean of Wonders & Marvels tells of how Friedrich Miescher discovered what later became known as DNA in decomposing pus (ewwww!); Lisa Smith of the Sloane Letters project describes how Sir Hans Sloane made friends with the Willughbys; Inglorious Ireland explains how statistics helped to make Guinness good!; Keith Moore of the Royal Society's Repository blog shares an early X-ray photograph of Sir William Crookes's hand; his colleague James Elder attempts to decipher the cacography of the Duke of Sussex; Dr Beechcombing (if, indeed, that is their real name) ponders physicist Ettore Majorana's mysterious disappearance; and Grantham celebrates Isaac Newton. Talking of Newton, GrrlScientist of Maniraptora shares a fascinating video of a boffin scanning Newton's Death Mask using Xbox Kinect technology.

When it comes to heroic tales of scientific exploration, Richard Dunn of the Board of Longitude blog has been delving into 18th-century observing tents, and Marieke Hendriksen of The Medicine Chest discusses why the ill-fated Franklin Expedition had quinine in the Arctic.

Last, but by no means least, the brilliant Richard Owen is often portrayed as something of a scientific villain. David Bressan of Scientific American's History of Geology blog, however, points out that he was actually a Sea-Serpent Killer.

(You didn't really think that Richard Owen was a villain, did you? Shame on you! If it's a real villain you're after, look no further than Lady Hope, who made up a pack of lies about everyone's favourite hero, Charles Darwin. A dreadful new book, reviewed by Yours Truly, attempts to resurrect her lies. And, if Lady Hope fails to quench your thirst for villains, you might like to check out the Out of Time blog's nomination for its Vile-Hearted Renaissance Peckerhead of the Month—which receives my nomination for the best post title of the year so far.)

When he or she isn't hoisting heroes on to ridiculously lofty pedestals, the Whigg caricature likes nothing better than to scoff in 20:20 hindsight at scientific failures, and mysterious, outdated or dodgy theories and practices. But, these can be every bit as fascinating as science's great successes:

Stuart Clarke asks was Newton a scientist or a sorcerer?, and Thony C puts him straight; Rebekah Higgitt considers Fraud and the decline of science; The Chirurgeon's Apprentice describes 18th-century observations concerning human decapitation; Asylum Science delves into the Forgotten Histories of Psychosurgery; B. Ricardo Brown of the Until Darwin blog shares his notes on a Royal Society post about the polygenic theory of mankind; Darin Hayton discussed the medieval belief that syphilis was caused by a series of planetary conjunctions; Lisa Smith of the Sloane Letters blog is intrigued by A Curious Case of a Petrified Leg; The Public Domain Review provides illustrations of some 16th-century Prosthetics; Katherine Allen of The Recipes Project provides some lovely alchemical images from a 1691 edition of John French’s ‘The Art of Distillation’; and finally Ptak Science Books describes Gaffarel's curious 17th-century notion that the elements of the Hebrew alphabet were written in the night sky.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to polish the pictures in my Darwin Shrine. (The sad thing is, you probably think I'm joking.)

The next edition of The Giants' Shoulders will be hosted in November by Scicurious at her blog, The Scicurious Brain.

Richard Carter, FCD

Writer and photographer Richard Carter, FCD is the founder of the Friends of Charles Darwin. He lives in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.WebsiteNewsletterMastodonetc…

One comment

  1. Thanks for the shout-out for the "Out of Time" blog post. Stay tuned for October's Vile-Hearted Renaissance Peckerhead of the Month (and feel free to make nominations--so many possibilities...).

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