06 December 2009

The new chemistry and strange treatment of diseases

Priestley's discovery of oxygen and Lavoisier's new description of the building blocks of nature had surprising consequences in the area of medicine. Thomas Beddoes (1760 - 1808), a philanthropic physician who cared much about the health of the poor and was an ardent admirer of the French Revolution during its first years, got carried away by the excitement of the new chemistry. He was convinced that illnesses such as "consumption" or "phthisis" (tuberculosis) and scurvy are the result of an imbalance of the elements in the inhaled air and promoted a new "pneumatic chemistry".

Scurvy (a disease produced by a lack of vitamin C) was in his view produced by a lack of oxygen in the air evidenced by discoloration of the gums, heart and lungs and could therefore be cured by letting the patient inhale air enriched with oxygen. The fact that seamen often succumbed to scurvy during long voyages across vast oceans could, in his view, be explained by oceanic air having a lower oxygen content. Beddoes was aware of the success of James Cook in beating scurvy through ample supply of acidic vegetables but argued that "this seems in great measure owing to his extreme care to keep his ships well aired."

The opposite, too much oxygen in the air, was in Beddoes' view the reason for tuberculosis (an infectious disease caused by bacteria now treated with antibiotica). He deduced this from the observation that occasionally pregnancy delays the progress of the disease and argued in 1793: "The foetus has its blood oxygenated by the blood of the mother through the placenta. During pregnancy there seems to be no provision for the reception of an unusual quantity of oxygene. On the contrary, in consequence of the impeded action of the diaphragm, less and less should be continually taken in by the lungs. If therefore a somewhat diminished proportion of oxygene be the effect of pregnancy, may not this be the way in which it arrests the progress of phthisis; and if so, is there not an excess of oxygene in the system of consumptive persons?"

Beddoes easily admitted that much of this was speculation. Nevertheless, driven by his urge to help humankind and improve the health of the poor, he promoted to keep patients afflicted with consumption in closed, badly ventilated rooms and established a Pneumatic Institute where patients were treated with air enriched with or depleted of various gases.

Naturally the Pneumatic Institute was not a success. For the patients, who were mostly close to their death already, the wrong therapy probably did not change much. But the Pneumatic Chemistry and its Institute were a sad waste of the extraordinary talents of a man who all his life wanted to better the fate of the ordinary people.


Beddoes, Thomas (1793) Observations on the Nature and Cure of Calculus, Sea Scurvy, Consumption, Catarrh, and Fever: together with Conjectures upon several other Subjects of Physiology and Pathology. London: J. Murrey.

Jay, Mike (2009) The Atmosphere of Heaven: the Unnatural Experiments of Dr Beddoes and his Sons of Genius. New Haven CT: Yale University Press.

12 October 2009

Obama and the Nobel Peace Prize

I do not usually comment on current political events in these pages, but last week I received an email invitation to congratulate Barack Obama on his Nobel Peace Prize. As I have commented on an earlier Nobel Peace Prize (see my entry of 14 October 2007 "Should the IPCC receive the Nobel Peace Prize?") I feel justified to react publicly to this insult to my intelligence. I do that by comparing the timelines of the Vietnam War (a war that also sparked a Nobel Peace Prize) and of the war in Afghanistan. What is a Nobel Peace Prize worth if the wars intensify? Evidently the prize has lost all credibility and value (except its monetary value, of course).
The emphasis on Australia is for some local friends. How long should Australia wait before it withdraws its troops this time?

1961 John F. Kennedy becomes president,
2,000 US troops in Vietnam
2001 George W. Bush becomes president,
special forces are sent into Afghanistan after arial bombing campaign
1963First coordinated protests in London and AustraliaLyndon B. Johnson becomes president, says that "the purpose in Vietnam is to prevent the success of aggression."2003 5,500 foreign troops in Afghanistan
1964Student marches in US cities16,500 US troops in Vietnam
1965First large anti-war marches in the US,
first sabotaging of military aircraft in Canada
The war is extended into Cambodia and Laos
200,000 US troops in Vietnam
2005 George W. Bush is re-elected president, declares that "the liberation of Afghanistan and Iraq will be remembered as great turning points in the story of freedom."
1966Public opinion moves from support to rejection of the war
2008Public opinion in Europe and Australia moves from support to rejection of the war, first large anti-war demonstrations in Europe
1969Millions take a day off in the US to demonstrate against the warRichard Nixon becomes president, promises "peace with honour" and an end to the war2009First news reports of protest demonstrations in AustraliaBarack Obama becomes president, says that the previous administration "has overextended our military", sends an additional 15,000 troops, authorizes the bombing of targets in Pakistan, receives the Nobel Prize
100,500 foreign troops in Afghanistan (66,000 US, 34,500 NATO)
1970First and only nationwide student strike in the US closes universities in protest against the warUS troops start incursions into Cambodia
Kissinger pushes for intense bombing of Cambodia
2010???US may start incursions into Pakistan (?)
US may raise foreign troop level to over 120,000 (?)
1971More than 12,000 demonstrators arrested in WashingtonAustralia and New Zealand withdraw their troops2011??????
1973 Kissinger receives the Nobel Prize
US troops withdraw from Vietnam, the USA increase military aid
2013?????? becomes president, promises to ???
1974 Gerald Ford becomes president, is forced to phase out aid by 19762014??????
1975 The fall of Saigon ends the war2015??????
Final cost: 3 - 4 million Vietnamese and 1.5 - 2 million Laotians and Cambodians killed, 58,159 US soldiers deadCost to date (October 2009): over 12,000 civilians killed (about 40% by anti-goverment forces, 60% by foreign troops), 1,435 foreign soldiers dead

14 June 2009

Calendar wisdom: who can add to it?

During the last few months I have been working with the publisher Weldon Owen on the Pacific Ocean section of their planned Atlas of the Sea, to be published in their family reference series in November. These books are of high quality, large format and colourful, full of information and at the same time suitable for the coffee table, see their website.

Now I am working with Weldon Owen on a volume Science and Society. It will be based on my lecture course but obviously have a very different presentation format - many photos and illustrations but only the most essential text.

One element of the book will be quotations from scientists and others relevant to each section of the book. I am searching for quotations from old texts related to the calendar problem. Here is what I have found so far:

The Atharva Veda says:
To the seasons we speak, to the lords of the seasons, and to the sections of the year; to the half-years, years and months: they shall deliver us from calamity! ... The five divine regions, the twelve divine seasons, the teeth of the year, they shall ever be propitious, to us! (Hymn XI, 6)
Thy summer, O earth, thy rainy season, thy autumn, winter, early spring, and spring; thy decreed yearly seasons, thy days and nights shall yield us milk. (Hymn XII, 36)

The Bible says:
And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and year." (Genesis 1:14)

The Qu'ran says: He it is Who made the sun a shining brightness and the moon a light, and ordained for it mansions that you might know the computation of years and the reckoning. (10:5)

Does anyone have other ancient quotations related to the calendar problem, from ancient China, Japan, South East Asia, Egypt, Greece, anywhere? If you do, please send a comment to this entry.

17 May 2009

Neo-fascism, the Soviet Union, Islam and all that

Today I received an email from a John Weeks in Texas:

"Sir: Thank you for your lecture series/book. It is the most humorous garbage I have read in many years. Monty Python could not have done better! I didn't know it was possible for someone to twist history so much to make their neo-fascist beliefs seem logical. The material on the Soviet Union and Islam are priceless. What a hoot!
Thank you, John Weeks, Texas, USA"

I emailed back and asked his permission to post his email on my blog, and he replied:

"Sir: You may post this on your blog under one condition: you must refer to me as one of those ignorant Americans who have caused all the world's problems.
Take care, John Weeks"

So let us note that I dutifully made the required reference but that it was John Weeks who said it and not me.

The email raises a few interesting questions. It is not often that I am called a neo-fascist. The usual understanding of neo-fascism is that it is a political movement and associated ideology that developed after the end of World War II, revives significant elements of fascism and expresses admiration for fascist governments of the past. I don't think that I have to go into great detail to make the case that nowhere in my material do I express admiration for Hitler, Mussolini or any other fascist leader. So the epithet neo-fascist cannot be applied to me.

It appears that John Weeks was careless in his use of words. Maybe he meant to use fascist and give it a bit more emphasis? After all, the word fascist is used and misused in many different contexts – there are ecofascists, vegefascists, fashion fascists, animal rights fascists and many more. Used in that way the word becomes utterly meaningless, as George Orwell already observed in 1944:

"It would seem that, as used, the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless. In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print. I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox hunting, bullfighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley's broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else." (George Orwell: What is Fascism? Tribune, 1944.)

It would seem that people who use the word fascist without much thought use it as a derogatory term and nothing else. This has become more and more fashionable lately, a trend that I find disturbing. As a German with a good education I am aware of the history of my country of birth and citizenship, and it always stings me when someone uses a word associated with the greatest atrocity of world history for such trivia as fashion.

So, John Weeks, call me an ignoramus, an ideologue, a witless moron, or whatever takes your fancy, but don't call me a fascist or neo-fascist.

John Weeks clearly does not like what I say about science and society in the Soviet Union and under Islam. It is difficult to say much about this without knowing what he finds objectionable. He may find it interesting to learn that some of the staunchest pillars of capitalism are turning towards Islamic practice. As Jeremy Harding reports in the London Review of Books, financial institutions based on the tenets of Islam have been barely affected by the debt crisis that triggered the Great Financial Crisis. Such esteemed institutions of capitalism as London's Lloyds TSB and HSBC and the German Deutsche Bank are now offering Sharia-compliant banking products to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. (Jeremy Harding: The money that prays. London Review of Books vol. 31 no. 8, pp. 6-10.) Maybe Islam is not such a hoot after all.

11 May 2009

Greek religion and science

In Lecture 8 I expressed my doubts that the Greek religion played a major role in the development of early Greek science. A few months ago I bought an English translation of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey at a library clean-out sale and had an opportunity to read it during long hours in planes and airports on my way to Iran and back.

I received my high school education in a German Gymnasium, a place of study in the humanist classical tradition. Latin and ancient Greek were part of the fare, but we never made it to the study of Homer. So this was my first time to meet the famous poet - alas, not in his mother tongue.

I have never been fluent in ancient Greek. My doubt about its value for life had already surfaced during high school and had gelled a few years later when I had to register for conscription. The clerk had already taken down my personal details and proceeded with the form: "What languages do you speak?" "English, Latin and Greek." The clerk: "English and Greek", muttering the words as he wrote them. I protested: "English, Latin and Greek." The clerk, his eyes still on the form: "We record only living languages." I did not know any living Greek at the time. I have met some now, and some are my friends, but when they speak in their mother tongue I don't understand a word.

But an English translation of Homer is quite adequate when it comes to understanding the character of ancient Greek religion. All of us (or most of us) know that the ancient Greek had many gods and goddesses of different rang and purpose. What I had not appreciated before I read Homer is the strong animistic component of Greek religion. Every river, every mountain, every forest had its god or nymph, and unusual events of the natural world were invariably the result of decisions made by immortal beings. Take this scene from the Iliad:

Driven by a rage over the death of his closest friend, the hero Achilles wrecks havoc among the Trojan forces, who flee in panic. Many end up in a river, where Achilles continues to slaughter them, "and he would have slain yet others, had not the river in anger taken human form, and spoken to him from out the deep waters saying: 'Achilles, if you excel all in strength, so do you also in wickedness, for the gods are ever with you to protect you: if, then, the son of Saturn has vouchsafed it to you to destroy all the Trojans, at any rate drive them out of my stream, and do your grim work on land.'"

Achilles takes no note of the river god's request. What follows is a masterful description of a flash flood: "Meanwhile Achilles sprang from the bank into mid-stream, whereon the river raised a high wave and attacked him. He swelled his stream into a torrent, and swept away the many dead whom Achilles had slain and left within his waters. These he cast out on the land, bellowing like a bull the while, but the living he saved alive, hiding them in his mighty eddies. The great and terrible wave gathered around Achilles, falling upon him and beating on his shield, so that he could not keep his feet; he caught hold of a great elm-tree, but it came up by the roots, and tore away the bank, damming the stream with its thick branches and bridging it all across; whereby Achilles struggled out of the stream, and fled full speed over the plain, for he was afraid."

To this point the text could be read as a description of a natural event and the words "the river raised a high wave" taken as a poetic turn of phrase. But the next sentence leaves no doubt about who is acting here: "But the mighty god ceased not in his pursuit, and sprang upon him with a dark-crested wave." And a few sentences further on: "Even so did the river keep catching up with Achilles albeit he was a fleet runner, for the gods are stronger than men." (The Iliad, book XXI) This animistic view of nature is at par with the spirit world of Japan, for example. It cannot explain why the separation of science from religion occurred in Greece and not in far east Asia for that matter.

There are, of course, those who scoff at animism and oracles. In the Odyssey the estate of Odysseus is in danger of being ruined by a bunch of lazy layabouts who during his absence feast every day at his expense, killing the estate's oxen, goats and sheep. When they are confronted with a prophesy that the flight of two eagles is an indication of Odysseus' imminent return and unforgiving revenge, one of them says: "Go home, old man, and prophesy to your own children, or it may be worse for them. I can read these omens myself much better than you can; birds are always flying about in the sunshine one way or other, but they seldom mean anything." (The Odyssey, Book II) But in Homer's poem unbelievers are not men of stature but representatives of the bad party. What would be a statement of rational thinking when spoken by Hippocrates is in Homer's context only proof of wickedness.

It is difficult to see how such an attitude to nature could be fruitful for the development of scientific thought. The reasons for the separation of science from religion have to be found elsewhere. They have to be related to developments in society that widened the horizon of people and allowed a new view of the world to gain ground against the ingrained animism of Greek religion.

30 April 2009

Text update complete

The minor update of the lecture text, announced on 10 October 2008, is now complete. (It was actually completed in February, but I forgot to mention this here.) To avoid major departures of the lecture text from the book edition any further amendments will not affect the lecture text itself but will take the form of blog entries.

29 April 2009

Science in the Persian empires

Why do the Persian empires rate so little mention in my history of Science and Civilization? This question had been in my mind for a long time. I had promised myself to clarify the issue but never got around to it.

Earlier this year I spent six weeks teaching oceanography in Iran and had the opportunity to visit several of its historic sites: Susa and Dur-Untash (Choghazanbil) of Elamite times and Cyrus' grave in Pasargadae and Persepolis of Achaemenian times.

The Elamite empire (c. 3000 – 559 BC) spanned the period before the onset of new science in Greece. Its achievements were comparable to those of its Mesopotamian neighbours. As pointed out in Lecture 2, Elam and Sumer both invented a script at about the same time. (Elam eventually abandoned its invention and took to the Sumerian writing.)

This was well understood; I had no problem with Elam. My feeling of uneasiness related to the Achaemenid empire (559 – 330 BC), which rose at the time when science made great progress in Greece. The Persian empire was not only one of the largest empires of ancient times, reaching as it did from Lybia in the west to Indian in the east, it was also governed by enlightened rulers. Its ceremonial capital Persepolis could match the best buildings of all other civilizations. Numerous documents from the construction period testify that Darius the Great (549 – 486 BC), the third of the Achaemenian kings, achieved this without the use of slave labour: All labourers were paid for their work; women often received higher wages than men and were entitled to paid maternity leave.

Why, then, does the Achaemenid empire not rate a more prominent mention in the history of science? The answer came to me when I studied its history, looking at the ruins of Persepolis. Cyrus the Great (died 530 BC) came from a nomadic tribe of goat and sheep herders. When he founded his empire he had no connection to scientific achievements. The situation can be compared with the beginning of the Islamic empires, which needed some 150 years to absorb the science of Greece and India before they could add to the science of others.

The Achaemenid empire did not have the time to reach that stage. It lasted only 230 years. In 330 BC Alexander the Great arrived with his army, looted its treasury and burned Persepolis to the ground.

From the cultural point of view, that a 26 year old orders the destruction of an awe-inspiring complex of magnificent buildings is hard to swallow. My Iranian colleague's response was: " But that is what they did in those days." He is of course right. But the issue may deserve a separate blog entry some day.

From the point of view of science history the result of Alexander's action was that the Achaemenid empire did not get its chance to contribute to the development of science. Persia had to wait another 500 years before the Sassanid empire (226 – 651) established the Academy of Gondeshapur and turned its hospital into a model for the world.

This is Persepolis today.

An artist's impression of the Hundred Column Hall.

Images from the documentary "Persepolis recreated", producers Farzin Rezaeian and Hossein Hazrati, director Farzin Rezaeian, Sunrise Visual Innovations Canada 2004.