Friday, April 26, 2013

Alfred Russel Wallace: Back in the picture

Image: Natural History Museum
Giving a lecture this week on biogeography and the role played by Alfred Russel Wallace in the development of that area of study, I was delighted to be able to call upon comedian and musician Bill Bailey to lay the groundwork with his excellent documentary on the Welsh biologist.

Bailey's two-part documentary on Wallace (part two to be aired on BBC2, this Sunday) comes during Wallace 100, a series of events throughout 2013 to mark the 100th anniversary of his death.

Some, including Bailey, argue that Wallace is a 'forgotten man' of science; his contribution to the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection having been watered-down or forgotten completely with the passing of time.

Wallace 100 seeks to put that right, not least by returning a portrait of the man to the main hall of the Natural History Museum in London - a portrait that was removed in 1971. Now, Wallace will have a presence in the NHM to rival that of his colleague in science, Charles Darwin.

A fund has also been set up to erect a bronze sculpture of Wallace at the NHM. This sculpture, currently being created, will finally complete an ambition which has existed since Wallace's death but was not realised due to the outbreak of World War 1.

As well as his contribution to the theory of evolution, Wallace is also know as the 'Father of Biogeography' - the study of how and why plants and animals are distributed across the world.

Biogeography, in tandem with evolution, explains why you find kangaroos in Australia and not in Canada; why you find giraffes in the wild in Africa and not in Ireland.

The Wallace Line (in red) marks a dividing line in biogeography

Wallace's travels and studies in south-east Asia led him to think about how animals and plants are distributed and he was able to draw a line - The Wallace Line - through modern day Indonesia and Borneo to indicate a dividing line between 'Australian-type' flora and fauna on one side and 'Asian-type' plants and animals on the other.

This line, we now know, corresponds with the meeting point of two major tectonic plates which have only (geologically speaking) recently moved together. So, whereas now these two regions lie very close together, the plants and animals on these plates developed in biogeographical isolation and differ hugely from one another. They're the original 'odd-couple'!

Watch the second episode of Bill Bailey's Jungle Hero on BBC Two on 28 April.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

"She looks beneath the shadow of my wings"

This plaque in Skibbereen, in West Cork marks the birthplace of the sisters Ellen and Agnes Clerke, both noted writers, particularly on the science of astronomy.

Living together in Skibbereen, Italy and London for most of their lives, the women pursued a common interest in science and, in particular, in the communication and popularisation of the subject.

Ellen was born on 20th of September 1840 in Skibbereen and Agnes was born on February 10th 1842. Their father was a bank manager in the town and a Protestant. Their mother was Catherine Deasy, a Catholic.

Although the family moved to Dublin in 1861 and to Queenstown (Cobh) in 1863, the sisters spent much of their childhood in West Cork. Due to their father's wealth and stature, the family was able to spend the cold winters in Rome (1867 and 68); Naples (1871 and 1872); Florence (1873-76). The sisters made the most of these trips abroad - spending many days reading in the Florence Public Library.

Agnes Mary Clerke (left) and Ellen Mary Clerke

The sisters only brother Aubrey noted the defining influence of their father, John William Clerke, on the scientific aptitude of the sisters:

"Although a classical scholar of Trinity College, Dublin", wrote Aubrey Clerke in 1907,"his interests were for the most part scientific".

"In our earliest years his recreation was chemistry, the consequential odours of which used to excite the wrath of our Irish servants. Later a 'big telescope' (4 inch aperture)was mounted in the garden, and we children were occasionally treated to a glimpse of Saturn's rings or Jupiter's satellites".

"These trivial things show that it was in an environment of scientific suggestion that our early lives were passed", wrote Aubrey Clerke in a foreword to a booklet recalling his sisters' lives.

The Clerke family home in Skibbereen
The family moved to London in 1877 and Agnes published the A Popular History of Astronomy during the Nineteenth Century in 1885. Her second book The System of the Stars was published in 1890.

Agnes Clerke was not a practicing astronomer and her contribution to the field is largely based on her tireless collation and interpretation of data from other researchers and the communication of that research. She could, perhaps, be best described as a science communicator, using today's vernacular.

Despite not working as an astronomer herself, she had, of necessity a vast knowledge of the area and spent a three month period in 1888 at the Cape Observatory (Cape Town) updating her knowledge.

Clerke Crater on the lunar surface
Agnes Clerke was a recipient, in 1893, of the Actonian Prize from the Royal Institution in London. This award was presented to the person who "in the judgement of the committee of managers for the time being of the Institution, should have been the author of the best essay illustrative of the wisdom and beneficence of the Almighty, in such department of science as the committee of managers should, in their discretion, have selected".

A member of the British Astronomical Association, Agnes was also an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Ellen Clerke is also known for some astronomical writings including the pamphlets "Jupiter and His System" and "The Planet Venus" but she was also known as a journalist, poet, novelist and commentator on religious issues, with a keen interest in Italian matters having lived in the country for several years.

Ellen's poem Night's Soliloquy, beautifully captures her and her sister's love of astronomy.

Agnes has the distinction of having a crater on the surface of the moon named in her honour. Crater Clerke is about 6 km in diameter and located very close to the Apollo 17 landing site - the last landing of humans on the lunar surface.

Ellen died after a short illness on March 2nd 1906. Huggins notes that "these sisters were lovely and pleasant in their lives and in death they were but little divided". Agnes died on January 20th 1907 from complications associated with pneumonia.



by Ellen Mary Clerke

Who calls me dark ? for do I not display
Wonders that else man's eye would never
Waste in the blank and blinding glare of Day,
The heavens bud forth their glories but to me.

Is it not mine to pile their crystal cup,
Drain'd by the thirsty sun and void by day.
Brimful of living gems, profuse heap'd up.
The bounteous largesse of my royal way ?

Mine to call o'er at dusk the roll of heav'n.
Array its glittering files in order due ?
To beckon forth the lurking star of Even,
And bid the constellations start to view ?

The wandering planets to their paths recall.
And summon to the muster tenant spheres.
Till thronging to my standard one and all,
They crowd the zenith in unfathom'd tiers ?

Do I not lure stray sunbeams from the day.
To hurl them broadcast as wing'd meteors
forth ?
Strew sheaves of fiery arrows on my way.
And blazon my dark spaces in the north ?

Is not a crown of lightnings mine to wear.
When polar flames suffuse my skies with
splendour ?
And mine the homage with the sun to share.
His vagrant vassals rush through space to
render ?

Who calls me secret ? are not hidden things.
Reveal'd to science when with piercing sight
She looks beneath the shadow of my wings.
To fathom space and sound the infinite ?

In plasmic light do I not bid her trace
Germs from creation's dawn maturing slow ?
And in each filmy chaos drown'd in space
See suns and systems yet in embryo ?

(Source: Huggins, 1907)

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