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Posts tagged with: Science History
For historians of science, the name “Sarton” resonates like a deep-throated bell. Isis, the international journal that chemist and mathematician George Sarton (1884-1956) founded in Belgium in 1913, is now the premier publication of the History of Science Society. The field he envisioned is flourishing as well as continually responding to changes in science and its social context.
The German invasion of Belgium in 1914 had threatened to upend Sarton’s life and career, yet the indomitable scientist and editor persevered, eventually reestablishing the journal in the United States. And by 1921, Sarton had gained a reputation for insightful and occasionally acerbic critiques, never shying from commenting on contemporary politics, science, and literature, including the type of popularization being initiated by Science Service. When one of Edwin Emery Slosson’s essays came across Sarton’s desk, the fellow editor responded, therefore, with a typical sprightly letter commenting on the tendency to pander to (rather than challenge) audiences.
“I have read your paper with great pleasure,” Sarton wrote on January 20, 1921, and “I heartily agree with you on most of what you say – not on everything however. For inst., you are distressed ‘to see so much good copy going to waste all the time’ etc. – This does not distress me at all – for the main trouble with the American reader is that he has to read too much anyhow. You remark that the weeklies and monthlies of fifty years ago contained more science than those of today. I am not surprised at all. For these magazines were read more slowly, more sedately than those of today. The despote [despot] of American literature is the ‘tired business man’ – who wants to understand everything without spending any amount of intellectual energy. Now believe me, the law of conservation of energy holds good in the intellectual sphere as well as in the material one: The returns are proportional to the expenditure. No effort, no results.”
“The tired business man is not satisfied with a clear and elegant explanation,” Sarton observed contemptuously, “he wants ‘pep’ – it is necessary to nudge him in the ribs or to kick him to keep him awake. Clearness is not sufficient, the facts must be distorted to keep his attention; a portrait of reality will never do – a caricature is needed ... You say that the American editors are looking for stuff in the style of [John] Tyndall, of [Charles] Darwin or of [Jean Henri] Fabre. I seriously doubt it. I believe that if fragments of these men were sent to the editors over my signature (or yours) they would be politely refused. The editor would not or could not give the reason – but I can give it: he would feel that these articles are too plain, too dull for his reader – His majesty, the tired businessman.”
“But forget all that,” Sarton consoled Slosson in closing, and “just remember that your paper gave me great pleasure and that I would gladly sign a great deal of it with both hands!”
By January 1924, Sarton and a group of influential historians, scientists, and intellectuals had founded the History of Science Society, and established a permanent connection between Isis and the society. Sarton also continued to pay attention to the fledgling news organization and on February 10, 1924, he sent a handwritten note to Watson Davis, saying “Allow me to congratulate you for the success of Science Service. I was skeptical at first but was wrong.” Later that spring, both Slosson and Davis expressed their support for Sarton's work by ordering the first five volumes of Isis for the Science Service library and joining the History of Science Society.
In November of 1925, Davis captured Sarton’s panache and lively intellect in two memorable photographs. As the historian I. Bernard Cohen summarized after Sarton’s death in March 1956, “In the intensity of the passion with which he addressed himself to each topic, one could almost see the ‘light that comes from the eyes.’”
History of Science Society, HSS Online
On view at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History (NMAH) through September 2016 is “Science Under Glass,” which celebrates the craft, art, and use of laboratory glassware. The display and the accompanying online exhibition draw from the museum’s collection of more than 1,000 pieces of scientific glassware.
From beakers and test tubes to Erlenmeyer flasks, these beautiful, seemingly fragile objects are what cartoonists, novelists, and moviemakers have long used to signal that a fictional character is a scientist. Place a test tube in the hand of a white-coated actor and every audience member will recognize her occupation.
Glassware, however, serves a vital function in the laboratory, allowing researchers to heat a substance, cool a substance, see a substance, monitor a reaction. And through the centuries, expert glassblowers have been asked to create intricate tubes and containers for specialized functions.
So, enjoy this slide show of photographs of laboratory interiors from the Science Service photographic morgue, and then take a look at the NMAH online exhibition for help in identifying the different types of flasks, tubes, and beakers arrayed behind these bacteriologists, chemists, biologists, and inventors.
Starting tomorrow through next week, we will be digging into the life of entomologist Harrison Gray Dyar (1866-1929). Dyar was honorary custodian of the Smithsonian's United States National Museum's collection of Lepidoptera (butterflies, moths, etc.) for more than thirty years. As a scientist, Dyar was noted for his work concerning mosquito-borne diseases. He also developed a new approach to taxonomy examining both larval and adult stages of insects that brought about major changes in the scientific community's understanding of insect systematics. [CORRECTION: it was John Henry Comstock of Cornell in the 1870s who pioneered this approach]
His private life was no less exceptional. Dyar made a splash in Washington, D.C. newspapers for his scandalous personal life that involved maintaining two families in two different dwellings at the same time. He also had a strange habit of digging tunnels underground, one of which caused an alley to collapse in Dupont Circle.
So stay tuned! Tomorrow we will launch five field books to the Transcription Center for which we need your help transcribing. Also, follow the Smithsonian Libraries' blog next week as author and entomologist, Marc E. Epstein Moths, Myths, and Mosquitoes: The Eccentric Life of Harrison G. Dyar, Jr., will share different facets of Dyar's life. Also on May 17th at 2:30 p.m., join Epstein on a Google Hangout to get a behind-the-scenes look at some of the specimen Dyar collected, and hear more about his fascinating life.
Transcribe and Learn with Us!
- H. G. Dyar - Bluebook 401- 414, 1893-1894
- H. G. Dyar - Bluebook 415-435, 1893-1894
- H. G. Dyar - Bluebook 436-450, 1893-1894
- H. G. Dyar - Bluebook 451-473, 1894
- H. G. Dyar, Bluebook 474-491, 1894-1897
- Free Google Hangout, May 17th, 2:30 p.m., with author Marc E. Epstein.
- #DigIntoDyar Pinterest Board
- Evening Program and Book Signing with Marc E. Epstein, Moths, Myths, and Mosquitoes: The Eccentric Life of Harrison G. Dyar, Jr., Tuesday, May 17, 2016 - 6:45 p.m. to 8:15 p.m. Go here for tickets.
- "The Unfathomable Pursuit of Personal Tunneling"Atlas Obscura, June 26, 2015.
- "Who Was Harrison G. Dyar?," by John Kelly, Washington Post, October 27, 2012 (first in a 10-part series).
- "A final look at D.C.'s tunnel-digging bug man," by John Kelly, Washington Post, November 7, 2012. (last in a 10-part series)
- Harrison Gray Dyar Papers, 1882-1927, SIA RU007101.
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