Giant’s Shoulders Blog Carnival #16

Welcome to 16th Edition of the Giant’s Shoulders Blog Carnival.

My two favorite historical quotes are, “If I have seen farther than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants,” and, “I owe my greatness to the smallness of my contemporaries.” Taken separately, each quote has its charm. Together, they explain…well, academia at least.

“The Giant’s Shoulders” is a monthly science blogging event, in which authors are invited to submit posts on “classic” scientific papers. The blog carnival submission page, and more information about the carnival, is here. The previous carnival is here, at Entertaining Research.

And I just want to say, that of all the blog carnivals out there, this is the best one!!! I mean, seriously, check out these amazing posts….


Reginald Scot and the Discoverie of Witchcraft reviewed and examined at Skulls in the Stars.

With Halloween approaching, it is worth thinking of one of the iconographic links made to that holiday…the witch. Witches can be fun: We can dress up as them for trick-or-treat, we can have childhood crushes on them (each generation has its hot TV witch, it seems), and of course, there are lots of people running around today who are pretty sure they are witches. The Harry Potter series is a highly successful exploitation of the concept that proves to be very entertaining to all by the most cynical.

But it would be inappropriate to ignore the fact that many tens of thousands (perhaps over 100,000) people were executed during the late Middle Ages through the “Renaissance” in Europe (and the colonies), charged as witches. People become angry at the use of the word “holocaust” in contexts they judge inappropriate. This might count as a holocaust. You judge.

The history of European witches and the persecution of people accused of being witches is very complex and has not been unraveled sufficiently to this day, but one of the more interesting moments in that history was the publication of the book The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) by Reginald Scot. Scot’s book “chronicles the supposed powers of witches and provides devastating arguments against them.” Arguments against the belief in powers of witches, not against the witches themselves. Blogger gg of Skulls in the Stars has read this tome and provides a fascinating analysis of it, placing it in historical context. It would seem that Discoverie is one of the earliest skeptical volumes written in Western history. This blog post is one of the most interesting that I’ve read in a long time.


Brian Switek of Laelaps won’t sweep Robert Broom under the rug! (Robert Broom and the “End of Evolution”) and the closely related Bain’s “Bidental Reptile” From the Cape Colony.

These two posts were particularly interesting to, and meaningful for, me, as I’ve worked on one of Robert Broom’s paleontological sites and handled some off the original “bidental reptile” material, which incidentally is stored in a room called the “Broom Closet” in the Transvaal Museum. (Some days it does seem like everything is connected.)

Brian explores the “unique view” held by Broom on how evolution works, which, like many of these early ideas, we don’t talk about much today. “Broom rejected both natural selection and Lamarckism as potential factors for evolutionary change. Instead he believed that the evolution of life occurred through a sequence fore-ordained by a Creator…” Well, science marches on, but that does not mean that we should forget the ideas of our forbearer.

In Bain’s “Bidental Reptile” From the Cape Colony, Brian outlines a key chapter in the unraveling of the early history of mammals and the relationship between European science and the evidence coming out of what is now South Africa.

Both essays are excellent reads and can not be skipped by anyone interested in evolution or paleontology.


The History and Introduction of Nuclear Chemistry and the Atomic Model at Phil for Humanity.

I’ve always been fascinated with the history of discovery of the atomic and subatomic level of matter. I find it absolutely fascinating that observation of regular scale, real live things, a pile of math, mixed with a few powerful insights could have lead to the construction of an atomic theory that was a correct as it was. If you look at the key papers of the day, you will see a series of exclamation points, each representing an insight or discovery as astounding as the last. I assume the reality was less “!-> !-> !-> !-> !-> !” and more “bla bla !-> bla bla bla !-> !-> bla bla !-> bla bla !-> bla !-> !->bla !->”

Whatever. Phil B.’s blog post is an excellent overview of the historical developments by a handful of giant-shoulder-guys around the turn of the 19th to the 20th century.


That’s for Jan Brueghel the Elder … A look at historical telescopes.

My first career was in Historical Archaeology, and during that time, I became an expert on 17th through 19th century Euro-American ceramics. Part of that process involved collecting old images…paintings and etchings and so on…that depicted (as part of the background, but sometimes as the focus, as in the case of still life paintings) such ceramics (as well as tobacco pipes and glassware). Dated (even if approximate) and provenanced (to country) images provide an excellent source of documentation of the material culture of a particular historical period.

Well, it turns out that this works with telescopes as well. How cool is that? Niall at We All are in the Gutter writes about early telescopes in art and covers a paper called, “The mystery of the telescopes in Jan Brueghel the Elder’s paintings.” I’ll let you read the post (and the original paper) to understand the mystery and its implications. You will not be disappointed.


Petit canard, grand canard, a post on the 1918 Pandemic and the historical silliness of the homeopathic remedy Oscillococcinum.

The virus was discovered about 20 years before the 1918 pandemic, and in those days, ten science years were equal to about one science year of today, so that’s like saying that the virus was discovered just before the pandemic. One reaction to the 1918 flu was a lot of research on the flu. And since viruses were just discovered, it is not that surprising that the presence of bacteria at the scene caused some people to think that bacteria caused the flu.

Medical science, such as it was in those early days, showed this to be wrong, but it would seem that alternative medicine, in at least one of its forms, still thinks so. I’ve just given you the way too simple version of a must-read post by PalMD at The White Coat Underground.


Skulls in the Stars examines The first paper on invisibility? (1902).

Invisibility is kind of a freaky concept. Air is invisible (to us, most of the time), of course, but most other stuff is not. Well, actually, how would we know….

Anyway, gg has us covered on this topic with a detailed examination of the concept and its early study. This is one to hand out in class.


Scicurious: Friday Weird Science: the Bees and the Bees

This is about bee sex.

Sometimes the early “giants” had it right. Sometimes they had it wrong. Sometimes maybe they weren’t really even that giant about it. In this case,

[i]t’s a paper from 1777, and so old that half the ‘s’s are ‘f’s. This makes the paper even more amusing, because now, rather than reading “Discoveries on the Sex of Bees”, I got to read “Difcoverief of the Sex of Bees”

The sex of bees eventually became a critically important thing. The whole bee thing puzzled Darwin and inspired Hamilton and to this very day confuses the layperson and fascinates the behavioral biologist. This post by Sci is a must-read for anyone interesting in the history of evolutionary biology.


Steel Cage Death Match: da Vinci vs. Galileo in The Renaissance Man Uniform Gravitational Acceleration SMACKDOWN.

What can I say. What goes up must come down. And either way, there are coriolis forces working. But do they work differently on objects falling towards a spinning planet vs. away from a spinning planet?

I recommend getting out your slide rule, a cup of coffee, and a piece of pie, and sitting down with this post for a fascinating flight of science.


GetOddNews: What is Gravity.

This is a detailed historical description of gravity with reference to Newton, Einstein, and other historical figures. Suitable for use in an educational setting.

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7 Responses to “Giant’s Shoulders Blog Carnival #16”

  1. October 17th, 2009 at 9:27 am

    Mike Haubrich says:

    There were political, religious and gender forces leading to the witch craze of Europe (and to a minor extent the colonies.) In many cases, the way to win political control was to accuse the spouse of your opponent of witch craft. Once accused of witchcraft, there was no “not guilty” plea recognized, and being married to a witch was pure political poison. Another reason was that once the formalized Christian Church started moving from the urban to rural (pagani) there was religious competition that needed to be “eliminated.” Kill the wise ones, (wicce,) of the existing religion and then co-opt the Holidays as Christian holidays; and bam – Jesus is everywhere.

  2. October 17th, 2009 at 4:40 pm

    PalMD says:

    Thanks, Greg. I keep meaning to write and intentionally submit a post, and i keep forgetting to!

  3. October 17th, 2009 at 7:17 pm

    Harald Hanche-Olsen says:

    The link to bees and bees got some HTML wrongly embedded in it. Fix?

    (And what is the source of that second quote of yours? It seems to be unknown to google, except as taken from your site.)

  4. October 18th, 2009 at 8:29 am

    Greg Laden says:

    Harald: I’ll fix that link right away.

    As to the quote, it appears that my carnival owes its greatness to the smallness of google.

    It is a I’ve heard and read many times, but not recently … i.e., it may have been circulating prior to the Internet, which contrary to popular belief, does not mean that it does not exist. I had originally heard it was H. L. Mencken. But, naturally, I once made that attribution on the internet and was swamped by people telling me that it was not Mencken but some other person more obscure in the past and so on and so forth.

    Same with the Giant’s Shoulder quote. For a long time it was attributed to Newton but apparently that attribution is wrong.

  5. October 18th, 2009 at 10:21 am

    Harald Hanche-Olsen says:

    Wikiquotes has the Giant’s Shoulder quote on the Newton page, under the Sourced heading no less. They claim it was in a letter to Robert Hooke of 15 February 1676 (Gregorian). It’s in Latin, however. Moreover, Newton was apparently not the first to come up with the metaphor.

  6. October 18th, 2009 at 10:23 am

    Harald Hanche-Olsen says:

    PS. The blog sure doesn’t draw the readers’ attention to links in the comments, does it? There were two links in my previous comment. Mouse over to find them.

  7. October 18th, 2009 at 5:35 pm

    Greg Laden says:

    Harald, I agree with you about the link text being too visually vague. We’ll have to fix this.

    Regarding the quote, I will quote Darwin, when one of his ideas appeared in print before he published it.

    “It doesn’t matter who thought of it first. It only matters who published it first.”

    …. I’m pretty sure Darwin said that….

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