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Subject: ‘Science’

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The true origins of the Renaissance lay in scientific enquiry

Posted in Art, Historical articles, History, Religion, Science on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

This edited article about the Renaissance first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 599 published on 7 July 1973.

Gallileo on the tower of Pisa,  picture, image, illustration
Gallileo on the tower of Pisa by James E McConnell

New Year’s Eve in the year A.D. 999 was not the most joyous festival in the story of our world. In the churches men and women crowded the pews, weeping and lamenting. In the streets outside, crying sinners flayed each other with birch branches.

In the churchyards crowds on their knees waited for the graves to burst open, and for the skeletal dead to rise and beckon them with bony fingers to their everlasting fate.

For, said the knowledgeable, on the morrow, the first day of the year A.D. 1000, the world would come to an end. On that day Jesus would return to Earth to judge all men, to send them off to heaven or hell.

The appointed day, discovered by the sages in their study of the stars, approved by the Church and accepted by the gullible multitude, had for long been anticipated. Famines and plagues, sent by the Lord as advance warnings of His wrath, had been steadily increasing in number. In an attempt to counteract their evil effects, pilgrimages had multiplied. As the day of doom drew nearer, all Europe was gripped by a paralysis of fear.

On New Year’s Eve that fear turned into an hysterical panic. Those who dared to go to bed, closed their eyes never expecting to open them again. Those who stayed up, watched the sky and waited in wonder for the descent of Christ.

But He didn’t come. And when the cock crowed and the restless sleepers awoke, and first light streaked the dawn sky, men all over Europe rubbed their reddened eyes and looked at each other saying. “It’s just like any other day. We’ve been fooled!”

The dawn of the eleventh century, however, was not perhaps quite like any other day. For it may well have been the first day in history when a large number of people realised that what they had been taught to accept for centuries was not necessarily true. As such, it may have been the first birth pang of the glittering epoch that we call the Renaissance.

Like the middle ages and the industrial revolution, the Renaissance is an era which cannot be confined between dates marking a beginning and an end. It touched many countries and was about many different things, and most of those things were happening in different places at different times.

But in the broadest sense we could say that it began in Florence about the end of the fourteenth century and that the major changes associated with it went on for two hundred years, until the early years of the seventeenth century.

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No-one believed Marconi had sent a transatlantic message

Posted in Communications, Famous Inventors, Historical articles, History, Inventions, Science on Friday, 7 March 2014

This edited article about Marconi first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 583 published on 17 March 1973.

Marconi experiments with a kite,  picture, image, illustration
Marconi sends the first wireless message by Peter Jackson

Flying kites is usually a summer-time hobby for young people.

But these kite flyers were men, and they were doing it in December. On that bleak headland at St. John’s, Newfoundland, the gale shrieked and the wind, sweeping down like a solid wall, had already carried away one of the kites.

Yet another one went up in its place, and the wire that held the kite trailed off into a lower room in a deserted building. There on the table was a collection of electrical apparatus and an earphone.

One of the men picked up the headphone and listened, hoping to hear the letter S in Morse Code. Three dots – blip, blip, blip.

Nothing. Not a sound. Hours went by, during which the imagination could have played tricks. Even when it came at last the listener could not be sure. He passed the earphone to his companion who listened and nodded. This was it.

Why was this an historic moment? Because the man who first heard the signal was a young Italian named Guglielmo Marconi. The date was December 12th, 1901, and the signal they heard had come through the air from Poldhu, in Cornwall, roughly 3,000 miles away.

The story of wireless – and particularly that of Marconi – cannot be told without first sweeping aside the word “inventor.”

It is a misleading word, suggesting a brilliant flash of inspiration which, at one bound, gives us a great boon. It hardly ever happens. Most of the great inventions came to fruition through the workings of many minds with one man finally gathering the threads together.

In wireless, Marconi was that man.

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Charlatans pedalled scientific gimmickry to a gullible public

Posted in America, Historical articles, History, Medicine, Science on Wednesday, 5 March 2014

This edited article about medicine first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 578 published on 10 February 1973.

American advertisement,  picture, image, illustration
A typical American advertisement for a vegetable pain killer

In 1800, orthodox medicine still wasn’t anywhere near the highly-developed science it is today. There was still mistrust of doctors amongst a large number of the population, and the services of the “quack” practitioners were still in some demand. When you consider that, on average, one out of every two patients who underwent an operation at that time died, it is hardly surprising that people did not exactly rush to the doctor when they felt ill.

There were two main causes for this high mortality. The first was that there was no anaesthetic available, so many patients died from the shock of the extreme pain. Secondly, there was virtually no hygiene of any kind in hospitals and all sorts of infections flourished.

It was Lister who discovered the importance of keeping operating rooms as clean as possible, as well as the hands and instruments of the surgeons. The first main advance in anaesthesia came from an American doctor named William Morton, who first used ether in the middle 1800s. However, ether caused burns round the nose and mouth when applied and doctors looked for a satisfactory replacement. This finally came in January, 1847, when James Simpson of Edinburgh first used a new drug called Chloroform in an operation. It was immediately successful.

With medicine still at such a comparatively crude level, it is no wonder that there were still quacks around making a good living. They might not be able to do any better than “real” doctors, but they probably could not do worse. In 1827 the painter, Constable, was concerned about the health of his young son who was suffering from whooping cough. A quack recommended that the child should be “passed three times over and three times under a donkey.” Before you laugh at that absurd cure, you must remember that Constable only went to a quack as a last resort because not a single orthodox doctor was able to help him at all.

The mystic magic of the Middle Ages’ quacks was now being replaced by scientific gimmickry. Predictably, it was in the United States of America that this new breed of charlatans grew fastest and strongest. Herbal medicines, many with a secret ingredient that was 90 per cent pure alcohol, came and went. The most famous of these has found its way into popular culture in a most remarkable way. If you think back almost exactly four years, you might remember a chart-topping song by a Liverpool group called “The Scaffold” entitled “Lily The Pink.” Amazingly enough, this song had its roots in a very successful patent medicine marketed by the Pinkham family in America in the mid-1850s. The moving spirit of the company was the indomitable Mrs Lydia Pinkham, whose picture appeared in many newspaper advertisements for her “Vegetable Compound.”

A popular song of the period had words that went something like this:

“Oh, we sing, we sing, we sing of Lydia Pinkham,
And her love of the human race.
How she sells her Vegetable Compound,
And the papers they publish her face.”

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Permanent street lighting helped to banish fear and crime

Posted in British Cities, British Towns, Historical articles, History, London, Science, Technology on Tuesday, 4 March 2014

This edited article about street lighting first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 577 published on 3 February 1973.

Moving street lights,  picture, image, illustration
Before street lights, the rich employed people to hold torches to light their evening strolls

Man has always been afraid of the dark. Nobody knew in early days what terrible existence awaited them as soon as day crept into night and blackness magically floated down to earth. Nobody knew; not many dared to find out. The world about would sleep until the sun came out, as if to regenerate the chemicals of life.

But man could not hide from the dark for long. He had to conquer it. In ancient Babylon they used thick tow wicks containing about one hundredweight of fat. The flickering lights would pinpoint a route through the deathly dark to safety. The wicks were so expensive, though, that they could only be afforded at festival times.

Imperial Rome was not much better off. They had no lights, and the coming of night covered the city in a darkness that brought death and emptiness. If you went out to supper without having first made out your will, you would have been considered outrageously mad. Important people might just risk venturing out into the night by having torch bearers with them, or at least a torch of resinous pine. But ordinary folk just wouldn’t consider braving the dark streets, and if they had to, it would be planned well in advance in time for the full moon.

The moon was never sufficient, though. In the 17th Century watchmen along the streets of London used to sing:

“A light here maids, hang out your lights,
And see your horns be clear and bright
That so your candle clear may shine
Continuing from six to nine
That honest men may walk along
And see to pass safe without wrong.”

Honest men, and dishonest ones, come to that, were probably safer in Paris. People there were prepared to pay for their safety, and one distinguished gentleman had a monopoly hiring guides with hand lanterns to travellers at night.

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Charles Darwin changed our view of the world forever

Posted in Discoveries, Exploration, Historical articles, History, Nature, Science on Friday, 28 February 2014

This edited article about Charles Darwin first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 574 published on 13 January 1973.

Charles Darwin on the Galapagos Islands,  picture, image, illustration
Charles Darwin on the Galapagos Islands by Andrew Howat

Aboard the 10-gun brig, H.M.S. Beagle, a regular feature of Sunday afternoons, as she sailed round the world on a scientific and surveying voyage, was her captain’s entertaining his officers by reading extracts from the Bible.

Captain Robert FitzRoy, only 23 years old and descended from Charles II, was a deeply religious young man, as well as being hot-tempered, eccentric, brave as a bull, just, strict and given to fits of deepest gloom. Like many religious people at that time – the Beagle sailed in 1831 – he firmly believed in the Genesis story of the creation of the world, with Man being made on the sixth day.

Not only that, FitzRoy and millions of others believed that the world was made at 9 am on 23 October, 4,004 B.C., a date worked out by an Irish Anglican archbishop of the 16th century called Ussher. All the ship’s Bibles, like countless others of the day, had a note to that effect. But on board the Beagle was a young naturalist, dressed as a civilian among all the naval officers, who was later to prove that the good archbishop was wrong by millions of years. His name was Charles Darwin.

Darwin, born in 1809, was one of the mildest of revolutionaries, who, in most Victorians’ opinions, was later to break the rules of decency in the most spectacular way by daring to challenge the Book of Genesis.

His beginnings were not spectacular. Though he came of a brilliant family, with a Shrewsbury doctor as a father, a poet and scientist as a grandfather and a mother who was the daughter of the great potter, Josiah Wedgwood, he was rather a dunce at school, was a poor medical student at Edinburgh, and, at Cambridge, seemed destined to become an obscure country parson, a strange beginning for a scientific genius.

It was at Cambridge, however, that he met botanists and scientists, who transformed his outlook on life. One of them, the Rev Professor Henslow, recommended him to FitzRoy as the ship’s naturalist.

When they met, FitzRoy disliked him on sight, mainly because he disapproved of the shape of his nose. It was not the nose, it seemed, to endure the hardships of a trip round the world. But after talking to the keen young naturalist, who was anything but the stuffy-looking Victorian his later photographs suggest, FitzRoy decided that Darwin would do, even with his nose!

On the great voyage, which lasted from 1831-6, Darwin did everything from climbing volcanoes in South America to studying the social life of ants. All of creation fascinated him throughout his life from tiny insects to the fossils of prehistoric monsters, and it was all triggered off for him by the voyage of the Beagle and, especially, the creatures he saw on the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific.

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Gunpowder challenged castle builders in the Renaissance

Posted in Architecture, Castles, Famous landmarks, Historical articles, History, Science, War, Weapons on Wednesday, 26 February 2014

This edited article about castles first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 568 published on 2 December 1972.

Artillery castles,  picture, image, illustration
Artillery Castles: the simplest was Camber Castle (top), made up of a 12-sided structure with a central tower, whilst Deal Castle (centre) was more complicated and built on three levels; (bottom) the round castle at Dover; pictures by Pat Nicolle

“Who is this man?” snapped Pierre d’Aubusson, Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes of the Order of St. John.

“His name is Roger, Sire. He is an English sailor,” replied one of the knights. “He has a scheme to destroy the Turkish assault bridge.” At this the Grand Master pricked up his ears. Though he was a busy man organising the defences, d’Aubusson was particularly interested in anything that could stop another Turkish attack on the St. Nicholas Tower, the northern outpost of Rhodes’ defences.

For months the Turks had hurled themselves with incredible courage and ferocity at the walls of Rhodes. Their cannon had smashed ramparts, towers and battlements. Once they had tried to take the St. Nicholas Tower and this time they were planning to float across an assault bridge. But how did they intend to do it? Roger the Englishman had the answer.

“Sire, the Turks brought an anchor in secret across the harbour last night. They have now passed a rope through it and tomorrow they will haul their bridge across on the rope.”

“Two hundred crowns if you can get rid of that anchor!” boomed the Grand Master. And two hundred crowns Roger earned the following night, for he was a fine swimmer. Yet the Turks were not so easily deterred. They concentrated a barrage of artillery fire on the St. Nicholas Tower while thirty ships towed the bridge across. With ships, shouts, giant cannon and janissaries the Turks once more attacked. The walls of Rhodes crumbled – but the Knights of St. John drove back their fanatical foe until after three months of siege the Turks retreated.

The shattered fortress of Rhodes had survived, yet all Europe knew that this Christian victory had been won because the knights were as fanatical as their foes. The weakness of their fortifications in the face of artillery fire was plain for all to see.

During the 15th century Italy was in the front line of the war against the Turk. Then in 1494 Charles VIII of France rampaged through Italy and gave the Italians yet another reason to improve their defences. One of the best Italian fortification engineers was Michele San Michele and in 1520 it was he who came up with an entirely new idea – artillery bastions which he designed for the defences of Verona.

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Benjamin Franklin was a kite-flying philosopher

Posted in America, Historical articles, History, Philosophy, Revolution, Science on Wednesday, 19 February 2014

This edited article about Benjamin Franklin first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 557 published on 16 September 1972.

Benjamin Franklin,  picture, image, illustration
Benjamin Franklin experimenting with lightning by John Keay

To set off into the country in the middle of a fierce thunderstorm might seem a strange thing to do, but for the purpose which Benjamin Franklin had in mind, conditions could not have been better.

He and his son went to a field outside Philadelphia, in the U.S.A., carrying a kite with a small pointed wire at the top to act as a lightning collector. Ordinary string was attached to the kite, with a length of silk ribbon joined to the end which was to act as an insulator. Where the string and the silk joined, he attached a brass key.

The kite was sent up, with Franklin holding firmly on to the ribbon. The silk had to be kept dry, so Franklin stood in a cowshed.

The storm was directly overhead. Franklin noticed that the fibres of the string were standing straight out, indicating that a “charge” of some type had collected on the string. With great caution, he moved his hand towards the key. A spark of electricity jumped to his hand. Franklin returned home soaked, but jubilant. He had proved that lighting was a discharge of electricity.

Benjamin Franklin was the tenth of the seventeen children of a poor soap-and candle-maker. Born in Boston, U.S.A., in 1706, he spent his early youth helping in his father’s business. Later, he was apprenticed to his brother James, who was a printer.

In 1723, Benjamin decided to go to Philadelphia to carve out a career for himself. He was hungry and penniless when he arrived. But with great determination and perseverance, he became the manager of a newspaper, and travelled to England to gain experience in his profession. By the time he was thirty, he was clerk to the Pennsylvania Assembly. He progressed from postmaster of Philadelphia to deputy postmaster for all the American Colonies. In twenty years, from his arrival, he rose to become the most important of Philadelphia’s citizens.

By 1746, he was wealthy enough to be able to spare time from business to take up the scientific research which fascinated him. Franklin was interested in the little-understood phenomenon of electricity. He had experimented with Leyden jars (ordinary glass jars covered inside and outside with silver paper) which were capable of storing a quantity of electricity until, on connecting the inner and outer coatings, the charge was liberated in the form of a spark. He thought that flashes of lightning were such sparks on a much larger scale.

In 1752, Franklin decided to put his theory to the test and the “kite” experiment took place.

As a result of his experiments in the field of electrical science, Franklin suggested that lightning conductors should be fixed to tall buildings to protect them during thunderstorms.

Although he led a busy life as a diplomat and politician, he continued scientific experiments in various fields. When he was sent to England on a diplomatic mission in 1757, he was welcomed as a distinguished scientist as well as a diplomat and was honoured by the universities of Oxford and St Andrews, Scotland.

Lister’s new antiseptic made patients safer from infection

Posted in Historical articles, History, Medicine, Science on Friday, 7 February 2014

This edited article about medicine first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 547 published on 8 July 1972.

Old operating theatre,  picture, image, illustration
Joseph Lister pioneered the use of antiseptics in surgery by Peter Jackson

Joseph Lister was born in 1827 at Upton in Essex where he grew up as part of a Quaker community. Besides successfully running the family’s wine business Joseph’s father had a keen interest in science an interest which was shared by his son.

While still a boy Joseph told his family that he wanted to become a doctor. His father was not sure that this was a good choice of profession but once he realised Joseph was intent on the idea he backed him in his ambition. He insisted however that before taking up medicine Joseph should have as wide an academic training as possible so he entered University College, London to read for a B.A. degree, and later he went to University College Hospital and obtained his Bachelor of Medicine degree in 1852. Soon afterwards Lister became a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons.

At first he took up research and the publication of the results of experiments proving that the iris of the eye has two muscles which dilate and contract the pupil brought him to the notice of the world of medicine.

But surgery held more fascination for him than medicine. Lister applied to one of the leading European schools of surgery, the Edinburgh Medical School, for permission to study there. He was accepted and became the pupil and friend of Professor James Symes one of Edinburgh’s greatest surgeons. After some months as Symes’ pupil he became his house-surgeon. Shortly after this appointment the post of lecturer in Surgery to the Edinburgh College of Surgeons and Surgeon to the Royal Infirmary became vacant and with Symes encouragement Lister applied for this position and was accepted.

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The exciting discovery of dinosaur eggs in the Gobi Desert

Posted in Dinosaurs, Historical articles, History, Prehistory, Science on Thursday, 6 February 2014

This edited article about dinosaurs first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 544 published on 17 June 1972.

Young Proctoceratops hatching,  picture, image, illustration
Young Proctoceratops hatching

The great dinosaur ‘rush’ across the immense fossil fields of America which had led to some of Man’s most exciting discoveries about monsters of the earth’s past, had begun to die down by the turn of the century.

Apart from Barnum Brown’s bonanza of dinosaur remains at the beginning of the twentieth century, one more outstanding discovery on the North American Continent was yet to come.

In 1913 one of the horned dinosaurs, Styracosaurus, was found by L. M. Lambe in the State of Alberta in Canada. This monster, which weighed three tons had a huge nasal horn and a neck frill armed with six spines. Like those of the Triceratops and Monoclonius, the horns of the Styracosaurus provided an effective defence weapon. Armed with these, the horned dinosaurs were able to hold their own against some of their most powerful and fierce enemies.

There were other discoveries in North America at this time. The Sternbergs, father and sons, carried on the work of the real pioneers who had led the great search for dinosaurs in America, Cope and Marsh.

But the North American Continent was not the only rich storehouse of dinosaur remains in the world. Africa yielded wonderful results. Other parts of the world south of the equator also gave up their long, buried secrets, but most of these discoveries were only a repetition of those which had been made in North America.

One exception is the expedition organised and financed from the United States, to Eastern Asia, across the vast empty space of desert scrub and grassland of Mongolia and the Gobi Desert.

Curiously, these expeditions to Mongolia were planned with another end in view. Dinosaurs were no part of the plan at all.

At the turn of the century a theory was put forward which suggested the possibility that Mongolia was the area where Primitive Man and mammals made their initial bow. That it could, in fact, be the birthplace of modern life.

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Barnum Brown’s dinosaur bonanza amazed the world

Posted in America, Dinosaurs, Historical articles, History, Prehistory, Science on Wednesday, 5 February 2014

This edited article about dinosaurs first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 543 published on 10 June 1972.

Tyrannosaurus Rex,  picture, image, illustration
Barnum Bron unearthed two complete skeletons of the iconic Tyrannosaurus Rex

In the summer of 1893, a young American student at the University of Kansas named Barnum Brown led a fossil hunt through Nebraska and South Dakota.

Whether this expedition was successful or not was never stated, but the ones which followed it certainly were.

For in the following summer Brown led another fossil hunt, this time through Wyoming, where he unearthed a skull of the Tricerops. Remains of this creature had been found before by Charles Marsh, who, together with Edward Cope, had led the great Dinosaur ‘rush’ of America. But for a young, inexperienced student, such a discovery was quite a feat.

After graduating in 1897, Brown became associated with the American Museum of Natural History and was immediately sent on an expedition to Wyoming to collect dinosaurs. This was the beginning of his long and successful career in dinosaur-digging, during which he was to become one of the greatest discoverers of dinosaurs in America.

Although he had collected many fossils, not only in the United States, but throughout the world, dinosaurs were Brown’s chief joy. It was often said by those who had assisted him on his expeditions that he could almost ‘smell’ them out. The imposing collection of Cretaceous remains in the American Natural History Museum, which he served until his death in 1963, is a wonderful monument to his life’s work.

One of Brown’s greatest and most exciting discoveries was in the Howe Quarry at the foot of the Big Horn Mountains near Yellowstone Park. In 1934 a rancher named Barker Howe had reported a find of huge bones on his ranch and Brown was sent to investigate. He found what could almost be described as a dinosaur quarry. Bones were breaking through the surface of the ground, having weathered their way through the soil.

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