28 May 2009

Brian Switek's Series on the History of Science

Brian Switek at Laelaps has done some outstanding pieces on incidents in the history of science. For my own amusement, and I hope yours as well, I'm noting some of them here.

To start with, Brian Switek offers an argument for understanding the history of science in "Who Needs History? [I do]".

I first read about the barnacle goose in a piece by Willy Ley when I was a teenager. (The piece probably appeared in his For Your Information series in Galaxy, but as I've permanently lost my collection, as well as the index I made when I was much younger, I have to rely on my aging memory alone, and I'm just not sure.) This goose was once believed to develop from barnacles, a fact that might have exempted it from the no-meat-on-Friday church prohibition, or something like that. Brian Switek writes an interesting piece ("Geese from Barnacles") on the subject, about a certain John Hill to took objection to the claim. Comments by Lars Dietz enliven the account.

Perhaps of especial interest to me, given my enthusiasm for Thomas Jefferson, is this piece on Jefferson and the mastodon. (May we hope for a companion piece some time on Jefferson and the giant ground sloth?) Jefferson of course was a man of many interests—political theory, theology, linguistics—and here we see him in his guise as a scientist.

I mentioned Nebraska Man in an earlier entry. This obscure event in the history of science involved the mis-identification of a pig tooth as a tooth of an unknown North American primate. The backstory is fascinating, and Brian Switek covers it nicely in two separate entries: "The Truth about 'Nebraska Man'," and "The 'Million Dollar Pig's-Tooth Mystery'" This is science writing at its best.

A fellow named Albert Koch may have made an extremely interesting discovery about 1839—the remains of a giant ground sloth associated with human artifacts. Of course we'll never know, thanks to Koch's Barnum-like proclivities. Read about it in "Koch's 'Mammoth' and Human Antiquity".

When did the last mammoth die? You might be surprised by this tale of "Killing the Last Mammoth".

Attempts to reconcile science with the histories narrated in the Bible have been many and varied, and I've waded through a number of them myself over the years. (I'm not sure why they fascinate me; they just do.) While not up there with Gosse's Omphalos, Isabella Duncan's 1860 Pre-Adamite Man is an interesting attempt to find a compromise that doesn't involve throwing out scripture along with the bathwater of tradition. Brian Switek reviews it here.

"Sideshow Bob Was Here" covers some 19th century human footprints carved into ancient rocks—a kind of fraud that continues till this day, alas.

One of the blog entries I lost with the death of my laptop almost a year ago was one about the fake letters attributed to Ignatius of Antioch. One of the heroes in separating the true letters from the false was the archbishop James Ussher, best remembered today for his calculation that the universe was created in 4004 BCE. This brilliant scholar deserves better, and Brian Switek gives him some acknowledgment in "Return to the Work of Ussher".

Possibly the outstanding entry in the series is "The Tragedy of Saartje Baartman", an account of a woman known as the "Hottentot Venus" who was exhibited as a sort of sideshow curiosity in early nineteenth century Europe. This is a story I knew nothing about until I read Brian Switek's piece on her. "The Sad Tale of Julia Pastrana" might be profitably read alongside this one.

I'm sure I've left out a number of great entries in this series, but let me conclude anyway with a few more miscellaneous links:

Weirdly cool: "The Father, the Son, and the Holy Goat"; "A Bad Bit of Stone"; "Devilution"; "The Problem with Shermer's Endorsement"; "The Sputnik Fable"

And here's a neat list of 19th century science books available at Google Books, including Chambers and Lyell.

Seriously, if you haven't already seen them, check these out.


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