Category Archives: Science

The tenth of October, 2012: a dreadful butcher’s business, and a serious and fascinating man

A belated follow-up to Friday’s post on Edmund Gosse. First, the gruesome part.

Recalling the time he spent as a young child in his widowed father’s company, Gosse (in Father And Son) gives a strangely touching account of how the pair whiled away dark evenings discussing “our favourite subject” – murders.

“I wonder whether little boys of eight, soon to go upstairs alone at night, often discuss violent crime with a widower-papa?” Gosse wonders. “The practice, I cannot help thinking, is unusual.”

The boy Gosse was thrilled by stories of Burke and Hare and of Mrs Manning, who “killed a gentleman on the stairs and buried him in quick-lime in the back-kitchen” (Mrs Manning, Gosse adds in a “useful historical fact”, was hanged in black satin, which thereupon “went wholly out of fashion in England”).

Most compelling of all was a macabre tale that was subsequently to mystify Gosse: the “Carpet-bag Mystery”.

This case, of human remains found bundled in a carpet-bag and suspended from Waterloo Bridge, was not, it seems, well-remembered in 1907, when Gosse published his memoir.

Who will tell me what the ‘Carpet-bag Mystery’ was, which my Father and I discussed evening after evening? I have never come across a whisper of it since, and I suspect it of having been a hoax.

It was no hoax. If Gosse had ever thought to google “carpet-bag mystery”, he would have known that.

On October 10, 1857 – Gosse would indeed have been eight – some boys boating on the Thames found a carpet-bag on a bridge abutment. Inside were twenty-three human bones (what Gosse called “a dreadful butcher’s business of joints and fragments”) and a suit of blood-soaked clothing.

Inevitably, public speculation focussed on two groups of highly suspect individuals: surgeons, and foreigners. But no body-snatching sawbones or swarthy French spy was ever hauled in to Bow Street Station to answer for the crime – in spite of a £300 reward. So no hoax, then – but certainly, and still, a mystery.

You can read much more about it at the excellent Victorian Calendar.

The third part of my Gosse exploration (wild Gosse chase? No?) is not about young Edmund but about the widower-papa, poor old Philip Henry.

PH Gosse was active as a natural historian at a traumatic time for natural historians who insisted on adhering to that old-time religion – and none insisted more vehemently than Gosse. But, confronted by the geological gradualism of Sir Charles Lyell – with its implications of an earth far older than any Biblical interpretation  would permit – Gosse, to his credit, did not hide behind scripture; instead, he answered science with science.

Or, at least, a sort of science.

Gosse’s theory, the great work of his life, his magnificent octopus, went by a single word: Omphalos. His son summed up the theory thus:

  [T]here had been no gradual modification of the surface of the earth, or slow development of organic forms, but… when the catastrophic act of creation took place, the world presented, instantly, the structural appearance of a planet on which life had long existed.

For instance, Adam would certainly possess hair and teeth and bones in a condition which it must have taken many years to accomplish, yet he was created full-grown yesterday. He would certainly… display and ‘omphalos’ [a belly-button], yet no umbilical cord had ever attached him to a mother.

This was the theory with which Gosse, fervently and heartbreakingly, hoped to “justify geology to godly readers of Genesis”. No book was ever published, Edmund Gosse wrote, “with greater anticipations of success than was this curious, this obstinate, this fanatical volume”.

And yet:

Atheists and Christians alike looked at it and laughed, and threw it away.

Two years later, Darwin published On The Origin Of Species, and the matter was pretty comprehensively put to bed.

The late scientific essayist Stephen Jay Gould wrote a beautiful and empathetic piece about Omphalos: An Attempt To Untie The Geological Knot and its author; Gould read all of Omphalos, so we don’t have to.

The essay, Adam’s Navel, is collected in the anthology Hen’s Teeth And Horse Toes (1990) and in The Faber Book of Science (1995). I strongly recommend tracking it down and reading the hell out of it.

Omphalos itself – complete with its assertion that (in Gould’s paraphrase) as God would create adults with faeces in their intestines, so too would he place petrified turds into his created geological strata – can be read in full here.

Serio-comic postscript, which probably says an awful lot about something or other, from the reliably odious Conservapedia:

Modern creationists generally reject “omphalos” as a means of proving a young Earth. The two major creationist organizations, Creation Ministries International and Answers in Genesis, along with the rest of the modern creation science movement, reject “omphalos”, instead relying on genuine scientific evidence.

Gosse, Gould tells us, was “a serious and fascinating man, not a hopeless crank or malcontent”. The same can’t be said of those who persist in peddling ‘creation science’.


The fifth of October, 2011: a nice colored tie to look at

“Everybody who comes to a scientific lecture knows they are not going to understand it,” wrote Richard Feynman, “but maybe the lecturer has a nice colored tie to look at.”

Feynman was just great: an incredible communicator, as well as a genius (I am not, of course, qualified to judge whether he was really a genius, but other geniuses are always saying that he was, and they‘ve been vouched for by other geniuses (it’s geniuses all the way down)).

Here’s a nice video, where Feynman comes across as a sort of juiced-up Carl Sagan, or possibly a sciencey Larry David. Brilliant.

The third of October, 2011: the twelfth of Vendémiaire, 220

I will be brief, today. I was wondering if you could still find clocks or watches that were made to tell the time according to the French Revolutionary calendar, which among other things attempted to decimalise units of time (imagine if they tried that here! We raise enough of a beef if someone tries to tell our market-traders to stop selling potatoes by the hundredweight).

It wasn’t popular among French clockmongers, as it completely jiggered their export trade.

Anyway, yes, there are plenty such dials extant. Here’s one.

A watch from the 18th century that looks like a watch from a parallel universe.


The twenty-third of August, 2011: an inverted engineer, and you and everybody you know

I picked up a splendid book at The Leeds Library‘s bargain-crammed booksale. It’s The Body by the science journalist (and part-time balloonist) Anthony Smith (Pelican, 1970), a gripping guide to the human form, inside and out. It’s entirely filled with interesting facts of the sort I’d like to foist on strangers at dinner-parties, if I ever went to dinner-parties. Did you know, for instance, that the typical fart comprises 59% nitrogen, 21% hydrogen, 9% carbon dioxide, 7% methane and 4% oxygen, sometimes with a flavoursome dash of hydrogen sulphide thrown in?

And it only cost me 25p.

Here’s a diverting historical anecdote from the chapter on ‘Respiration and Blood’. It concerns stogie-chomping engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel:

He swallowed a half-sovereign in 1833 [the year he began work on the Great Western Railway] and, which was far worse, it chose to go the way of his lungs rather than his stomach.

For two days he suffered, and was then summarily strapped on to a plank. This was raised nearly to the vertical, with Brunel’s head at the lower end; his back was then hit. This rough approach failed entirely. It caused much more choking to arise, but no half-sovereign.

Further treatment in the same sledgehammer manner three and a half weeks later did in fact budge the coin from his right bronchus, but not far enough. His trachea was then cut open, but unavailingly.

Two more weeks passed, and he again submitted to the upside-down shock treatment – it sounds entirely his own devising – and the coin dropped from his mouth.

Richer then by ten shillings and an unpleasant six-week experience Brunel was a lot luckier than some who never lose the impediment in their lungs.

The Body was made into a documentary film by Kestrel Films in 1971; there are a couple of clips – uploaded by fans of Floydist and soundtrack composer Roger Watershere and here.

The sixteenth of May, 2011: a little bit obsessed with Professor Richard Wiseman

I’ve getting a little bit obsessed with the psychologist and ex-magician Professor Richard Wiseman. Here are a couple of thing I’ve lifted from his stupendous blog.

This is a lovely bit of illusion-cum-animation:

It put me in mind of a zoetrope – but apparently it’s “sort of the mechanical opposite of a zoetrope”.

“It’s pretty simple to make these [says blog-poster Fluffy]. First, your overlay just needs to have opaque bars with gaps between them which are sized such that for N frames of animation, you have 1 unit of clear and N-1 units of opaque. Then you have your frames of animation, and you cut them up into 1-unit strips and then put the first strip from the first frame, the second strip from the second frame, the third strip from the third frame, and so on, wrapping around. Then as you move the overlay, you get the illusion of motion.”

And this is a brilliant bi-stable image (do you see one face, or two lovers kissing?):

That’s by Gianni Sarcone, Courtney Smith and Marie-Jo Waeber from the splendid Archimedes’ Lab Project in Genoa, Italy.

The sixth of May, 2011: for the moment, the earth is where we make our stand

I’d somehow managed to live for thirty-two years without hearing about Einstein’s light clock, only to be enlightened by Professor Brian Cox at the Uncaged Monkeys show.

Some super-clever Australians explain it very well here, complete with neat animations. I gather that the premise is that, because the speed of light is constant whatever your own position, time is (to deploy a technical term) stretchy.

Very clever man, that Einstein.

I can’t mention Uncaged Monkeys and not link to one of the many many Pale Blue Dot videos on the internet (attending Uncaged Monkeys leaves you with the not unpleasant feeling of having been inducted into a fundamentalist Saganite cult). So here’s one, and here’s another:

There’s also a religious take on the p.b.d. to be found on GodTube (no, really), and it’s an excellent exercise in advanced point-missing, but I won’t link to it, as just watching it made me do a bit of a sick in my mouth.

The thirty-first of March, 2011: a convenient fiction, and where your father does his barnacles

Well, I missed Darwin Day, because I didn’t know there was such a thing. And then I missed Richard Dawkins’ 7oth birthday, on March the twenty-sixth (in my defence, it was a Sunday (the Lord’s day, you know), so I wasn’t Clutterbucking).

I’m going to post a little bit of Darwin to make up for it.

Deciding what to quote is the difficult bit. As Stephen Jay Gould has noted, it’s great being a Darwinist, because Darwin was such a great feller.  I agree with JW Burrow when says:

The Origin is at its most impressive precisely when Darwin seeks out and confronts the most serious objections, even when he cannot fully meet them.

And you could say the same about Dawkins, for instance in the dazzling chapter on the sensory abilities of bats in The Blind Watchmaker (though Dawkins, a hundred and fifty years on from The Origin, can pretty much always fully meet them). So I’d like to quote Darwin in that context – but I won’t.

I’d also like to quote the endearing story about Darwin’s son Francis and the barnacles, but it’s told perfectly well here, so I won’t do that, either.

What I will do is quote Darwin on the field of zoology I know best (birds), in the masterly concluding chapter of The Origin. He reminds us that transitional species needn’t be troubling half-man, half-monkey hybrids (of which more later), but that, rather, ‘transition’ can refer to behaviour as well as to morphology.

How strange it is that a bird, under the form of a woodpecker, should have been created to prey on insects on the ground; that upland geese, which never or rarely swim, should have been created with webbed feet; that a thrush should have been created to dive and feed on sub-aquatic insects; and that a petrel should have been created with habits and structure fitting it for the life of an auk or a grebe! and so on in endless other cases.

But on the view of each species constantly trying to increase in number, with natural selection always ready to adapt the slowly varying descendants of each to any unoccupied or ill-occupied place in nature, these facts cease to be strange, or perhaps might even have been anticipated.

It’s a birdwatcher’s-eye view of evolution in action (I regret, sentimentally, the passing of the time when zoology was natural history – that is, an amateur’s game (and I mean that in a good way)). Anyone who maintains a personal antipathy to Darwin must never have read him.

As an encore, here’s Dawkins (happy belated birthday!), demolishing the whole transitional-species business:

Creationists love ‘gaps’ in the fossil record. Little do they know, biologists have good reason to love them too. Without gaps in the fossil record, our whole system for naming species would break down. Fossils could not be given names, they’d have to be given numbers, or positions on a graph.

Let us use names as if they really represented a discontinuous reality, but by all means let’s privately remember that, at least in the world of evolution, it is no more than a convenient fiction, a pandering to our own limitations.

That’s from The Ancestor’s Tale, with Yan Wong (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2004).

I’m going to quote WNP Barbellion again: ‘What splendid people we humans are! If there be no loving God to watch us, it’s a pity for His sake as much as for our own.’ I’d probably insert ‘to read us’ instead of ‘to watch us’. A not unrelated point is made very well here.