Why is it…

…that I never manage to pack a lunch on the cold, rainy days, thus forcing me to make a miserable (albeit short) trek for bagels? After lunch I felt paranoid about my hands being wet (they weren’t) when I touched letters that had been given TLC by the conservators.

Which reminds me of a dream I had several weeks ago, in which I was reading some of those letters over lunch at my kitchen table. Dream-me felt very anxious: what was I thinking, taking them home and then risking spilling something on them? This is not the first work-related dream I’ve had—a few times I was working in Perl while I slept—but it’s the first I’ve had in a long while.

Happy birthday, Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin, 1854 (Wikimedia Commons)

Henry Seebohm, 12 December 1886:

Charles Darwin stands head and shoulders above all other biologists of the nineteenth century, as the Titan who destroyed the fetish of Special Creation; nevertheless “he found the theory of Evolution an unaccredited truth and left it an accredited fallacy.”

Happy birthday, Jonas Salk

Dr. Jonas Salk

Dr. Jonas Salk (The Owl, via Wikimedia Commons)

My mind turns to Jonas Salk whenever The Daughter has a doctor’s appointment coming up. She does not like having needles stuck into her body; I cannot blame her, but have explained that we do not screw around with polio. She has thusfar been unmoved by this, but a refreshing beverage generally soothes her.

The Scientists Collection includes Salk’s autograph, obligingly added beneath an acrostic poem written on lined paper. The poet, Jimmie Grice, used green ink (marker?), with red highlighting the opening letter of each line. For reasons of privacy and copyright* I will not transcribe it; but “A Poetrait of Dr. Jonas E. Salk” is thoroughly delightful.

* One benefit of older material—the creators can safely be assumed to be dead. When that is not the case, I err on the side of caution.


A. G. Wetherby wrote to Christian Marinus Poulsen on 15 April 1879. The ink is pink. A bright, bubble-gum pink that I would not expect to see used by anyone over the age of twelve. I am somewhat surprised that the technology to make such an unnatural color existed in the nineteenth century. I suppose it might be a result of fading, over the years…but from what original color?

Also of note is the diaersis over the second “o” of Zoölogy (Wetherby was a professor of geology and zoology at the University of Cincinnati), a common rendering on letterhead. Wikipedia (sans citation) says the diaeresis was fading from English words by the 1940s. That feels late to me, though I can’t say why, and I certainly haven’t played extensively enough with early twentieth century documents to offer any solid impressionistic opinion. (And I’ve decided “solid impressionistic” is not an oxymoron.)

Stone implements

In an 18 September 1873 letter to an unknown recipient, John Evans discussed the notches in stone implements which he believed to be ornamental. He included an impression of one of his samples, a blade pressed into a big red blob of sealing wax. When I first saw it, I thought it was perhaps the abdomen of a grasshopper and that Evans might have been an entomologist, rather than an archaeologist and geologist.

“You are under no obligations to me, pecuniary or other.”

Isaac Hays wrote those words in a brief 19 November 1833 letter to Sally Minis, which he signed as “Your friend.” The phrase has a ritual ring to it, though I am not sufficiently informed on nineteenth century courtship practices to say so with any degree of certainty.

The couple married in Savannah the following year. Earlier letters, much more wordy, are filled with lines written at ninety degree angles, filling the page with cubes (but remaining legible, with some effort).

The politics of measurement

Sir John F. W. Herschel wrote to the East Indian Company on 5 November 1867. He argued against the adoption of the metric system for weights and measures in India (recommended in the Report of the Bengal Committee, 23 Aug 1866, which cited Herschel in a way that he felt completely misrepresented his position, which was anti-metric and “diametrically opposed” to the conclusions of the Report, “that the French metric system ought to be adopted exclusively and in its integrity for general use in India.”) After laying out a lengthy argument, defending the mathematical integrity of the British system, Herschel made a more nationalistic appeal:

For, whatever may be the efforts of the Committee who are agitating in England for the expulsion of our national and the adoption of the French system, and however a few scientific men, and especially Chemists, may consider that by the habitual use of the latter in their writings they shew themselves superior to antiquated or national prejudice, we may rest assured that nothing will ever induce British shopkeepers, farmers, and their customers to buy and sell by the metre, kilogramme, and litre; or British proprietors to alter their title deeds and measure their land by the Hectare.

Just another way in which science and empire were intertwined.

Birds and teeth

A few weeks ago I took The Daughter to the APS museum, as part of a Day of Fun in Philadelphia. (Other aspects of Fun included playing in the park with a similarly-aged, ball-enabled girl and saying hello to Billy, a very nice horse who gives carriage rides.) The exhibit du jour (du mois) is Of Elephants & Roses, focusing on natural history in post-revolutionary France. The Daughter was a big fan of the taxidermied birds, particularly Empress Josephine’s black swan, and raced around yelling “Bird bird bird.” (We were the only ones in the exhibit space, near to closing time; otherwise a little more restraint would’ve been in order.)

I was personally more interested in the elephant side of the equation. More specifically, I got a big kick out of the mastodon tooth on display. As I’d just been reading Thomson’s chapters on Big Bone Lick, it was rather neat to see one of the fossils in the flesh, as it were.

The tooth on display is big. On a visceral level, it encourages one to fear the mouth that it fit into. (Carnivore, herbivore, whatever.) Looking at that tooth, my inner six-year-old was on the exact same page as Thomas Jefferson: the mouth that held that tooth was big and it probably wanted to eat me. Jefferson was gleeful because he wanted North America’s fauna to do it proud in comparison to Europe; my inner six-year-old just thought ravening herds of carnivorous mastodons would be cool.


Sir Oliver Lodge to F. Bernard Vesper, Jr., 3 February 1925:

Biologically it is difficult or impossible to draw a hard and fast line between one species and another: I see no reason why such sharp lines should be attempted.

As to Survival, we must be guided by the facts; I expect that there are many grades of survival, that is to say I expect that life never goes out of existence. But whether individuality is associated with it depends upon the grade attained.