Archive by category | History of science

Top 20 books: discovering worlds

Kepler-186f, the first validated Earth-size planet to orbit a distant star in the habitable zone. Kepler-186 system about 500 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cygnus.

In terms of job satisfaction, discovering worlds must take the Sachertorte. Sibling astronomers William and Caroline Herschel, for instance, rejoiced in a haul that included Uranus, eight comets and several moons gleaned from what William called the “luxuriant garden” of the skies. Their final tally of deep-sky objects, with that of William’s gifted son John, numbered in the thousands. I’m sure their minds would be boggled by today’s exoplaneteering exploits — such as the TRAPPIST-1 system of seven Earth-like planets that fully emerged this year.  Read more

Bricks + Mortals: mapping the racist roots of science

Subhadra Das,xxx

If walls could speak: the saying might have been tailor-made for University College London’s new exhibition. Bricks + Mortals uses the campus buildings to tell the story of how eugenics gained a foothold at the university over a century ago. The epicentre, a lab for “national eugenics”, was set up in the early 1900s by Francis Galton, the Victorian mathematician and ‘father of eugenics’ whose crude bolting of statistics to human variety marks a nadir of modern science. Several UCL buildings and lecture theatres still bear the names of eugenicists.  Read more

Women in Medicine: opening the clinic door

Asha Kasliwal, xxx, holds portrait of xxx in the Women in Medicine exhibition at the xxx.

Visitors stepping into the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) in London are normally greeted by the sombre stares of imposing men, in portraits lining the walls. From today, women outshine them, in 26 photographic portraits of modern female clinicians ranged along the central stairwell. Each holds an image of a historical figure who inspired them.  Read more

The Colorado: elegy for an overused river

The Colorado River in xxx

The Colorado River in the US West proves the adage that you never step into the same river twice. Lined by a vast array of landscapes, communities and industries it has shaped, its waters run variously aqua, navy blue, muddy brown — or not at all. Over its 2,334 kilometres, it sustains some 40 million people, 2 million hectares of farmland and the Hoover Dam. It is also polluted, depleted, diverted.  Read more

A wily plotter and his pioneering atlas

A wily plotter and his pioneering atlas

When it comes to unearthing facts and piecing them together into a bigger picture, scientists arguably have it easier than historians. The forensic scientist has recourse to DNA, soil and pollen analyses. The astrophysicist and molecular biologist have big data and an arsenal of technology to collect and unravel it. Even the palaeontologist has a formidable taxonomic lexicon to fall back on. Historians have to make do with piecemeal facts and shadowy context, guided by sources that are often incomplete, unreliable and open to misinterpretation. They cannot systematically test their hypotheses or devise controls to shore them up.  Read more

Hidden Figures: the movie


High-profile protests dominated the media during the civil rights era in 1960s America. At NASA, a quieter struggle was already underway. From the 1940s, African-American women had been chipping away at perceptions and making incursions into the early space programme — that otherwise very white, male world.  Read more

Versed in science

Versed in science

International Poetry Day may seem a strictly literary shindig. But despite the ongoing evocations of C.P. Snow’s 1959 ‘two cultures’ lecture, science and poetry are not-so-strange bedfellows. Nature itself is the perfect exemplar: the journal’s very title is taken from a poem by English Romantic poet William Wordsworth.  Read more

Electrifying: Tesla on television

Electrifying: Tesla on television

An eccentric genius in an impeccable suit and a level-headed young sidekick who have to use their wits to combat a time-travelling automaton and save the Earth. No, this is not the plot of the latest Doctor Who. It is Nikola Tesla and the End of the World, a fun and highly original four-episode science fiction series created by Ian Strang nominated at the 2015 Raindance film festival best British Series category (and available free to view online).  Read more