Scientific Methods: Appleton and The Young Chemist

We wanted to share some excellent scientific illustrations from a recently-cataloged, 1897 edition of John Howard Appleton’s The young chemist: a book of laboratory work for beginners. 

Appleton, born in Maine in 1844, was a chemistry professor at Brown University, as well as the Rhode Island State Sealer of Weights and Measures. (What a fantastic title, right?) He wrote twelve chemistry texts, including The young chemist, which was first published in 1878.

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The Year-Book of Education for 1879 describes The young chemist thusly:

The Young Chemist is a manual of instruction in chemistry on the experimental or object method, of which the characteristic advantages as regarded by the author are: the apparatus described and the supplies called for are of the simplest character; the experiments are described in clear and simple language, and in direct form; dangerous experiments are excluded; the chemical elements are discussed in a scientific order; formulas and reactions are introduced freely, so that the student learns the new nomenclature and the new notation without suspecting it.

This description fails to mention the detailed illustrations, which really have everything one could want in terms of chemistry-themed visuals:

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Test tubes! Open flames!

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A guy blowing bubbles in a beaker!

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Quartz (SiO2) crystals, which looks to be straight out of the Cueva de los Cristales!

If this blog post is causing you to have an insatiable urge to carry out simple science experiments, you should check out NPR’s article on experiments using leftover Halloween candy. Just make sure to keep Appleton’s hints in mind.

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Art//Archives Sneak Peek: Weird, Old Science

This week’s Art//Archives Visual Research Hours will also serve as our first sneak preview of some items that will be featured in the upcoming 2016 exhibition and program series, Portals: History of the Future.

We’ve been poking through scores of old science magazines from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and we’ve picked a few highlights for your pleasure and entertainment.

An odd shout-o-phone! A potato-like Arctic face mask! A royal coach made out of pipe cleaners! If you’d love to spend some time with this fabulous 1940 issue of Popular Science or similar magazines, swing by Special Collections on Tuesday between 10:30 and 1:00.

Impeccable Science, or, the Flames of Intemperance

What do you do when you want to evaluate if an article is a reliable, credible source of information? Purdue’s Online Writing Lab, my favorite wellspring of writing advice, counsels that “responsible, credible authors will cite their sources so that you can check the accuracy of and support for what they’ve written.” Sensible advice, in my opinion.

Bearing that in mind, let’s take a look at this July 1812 issue of The Emporium of Arts and Sciences (vol. 1, no. 3), which features some of the most fantastically impeccable science I have ever encountered in my short but highly scientific life.

The name sounds pretty legit, no? It even says “sciences” in the title!

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How reliable is the author? Does he cite his sources so that we can examine the support for what he’s written?

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Ooo, yes, plenty of (poorly photographed) footnotes, and some of them are even in French! This author does his homework, and he’s bilingual, to boot. I’m leaning towards deeming this a trustworthy source for information about…

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“Combustion of the Human Body, produced by the long and immoderate use of Spirituous Liquors”.

Hang on, what? Drinking too much can make your body catch on fire? I’d consider that “destitute of probability”, as author Pierre-Aime Lair notes that some readers, myself apparently included, may be apt to consider. He promptly addresses our collective doubts:

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Is it more surprising to experience such incineration than to void saccharine urine, or to see the bones softened to such a degree as to be reduced to the state of a jelly? The effects of this combustion are certainly not more wonderful than those of the bones softened, or of the diabetes mellitus.

Point taken– the human body can be strange and marvelous. I still want more proof, though.

In physics, facts being always preferable to reasoning, I shall here collect those which appear to me to bear the impression of truth; and, lest I should alter the sense, I shall quote them such as they are given in the works from which I have extracted them.

Oh good, facts! The author’s “facts” are henceforth presented in nine thoroughly footnoted pages of wildly gruesome recollections wherein women, in their drunkenness, were reduced to piles of ash, often with a few extremities preserved in near-perfect condition. It’s an awful lot to take in, and I’ll spare you the bulk of it, lest you be haunted by nightmares like the ones I’m sure to have tonight. Highlights include a woman whose maid found her as “a heap of ashes, in which could be distinguished the legs and arms untouched”, a room full of “a moist kind of soot” which was “conveyed to a neighbouring kitchen… a piece of bread in the cupboard was covered with it, and no dog would touch it”, a woman whose trunk had “the appearance of a log of wood”, and an ash pile next to an extremely small hearth with a “right foot… found entire, and scorched at its upper junction”.

So, that’s terrifying. For readers who are, no doubt, feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume of this horrific evidence, the author sums up commonalities in a handy list:

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1. The persons who experienced the effects of this combustion had for a long time made an immoderate use of spirituous liquors.
2. The combustion took place only in women.
3. These women were far advanced in life.
4. Their bodies did not take fire spontaneously, but were burnt by accident.
5. The extremities, such as the feet and the hands, were generally spared by the fire.
6. Water sometimes, instead of extinguishing the flames which proceeded from parts on fire, gave them more activity.
7. The fire did very little damage, and often even spared the combustible objects which were in contact with the human body at the moment when it was burning.
8. The combustion of these bodies left as a residuum fat foetid ashes, with an unctuous, stinking, and very penetrating soot.

All of my modern, feminist sensibilities are offended by the idea that this fate only befalls older women. Why do women have to bear the brunt of the ill effects of heavy drinking? How on earth do fiery accidents distinguish between male and female bodies in the first place? How does one become so deeply imbued with liquor that one’s body is essentially a figgy pudding?

Not to fear, Pierre-Aime Lair can explain.

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The female body is generally more delicate than that of the other sex. The system of their solids is more relaxed; their fibres are more fragile and of a weaker structure, and therefore their texture more easily hurt. Their mode of life also contributes to increase the weakness of their organization. Women, abandoned in general to a sedentary life, charged with the care of the internal domestic economy, and often shut up in close apartments, where they are condemned to spend whole days without taking any exercise, are more subject than men to become corpulent. The texture of the soft parts in female bodies being more spongy, absorption ought to be freer; and as their whole bodies imbibe spirituous liquors with more ease, they ought to experience more readily the impression of fire.

Um. Women have weak fibers and are spongy. But why older women, specifically?

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Dancing and walking, which form salutary recreation for young persons, are at a certain age interdicted as much by nature as by prejudice. It needs therefore excite no astonishment that old women, who are in general more corpulent and more addicted to drinking, and who are often motionless like inanimate masses, during the moment of intoxication, should experience the effects of combustion.

Older women are “spongy”, AND they’re “motionless like inanimate masses”?! They’re more likely to be drunk, and therefore more likely to light on fire while going about their daily business? This is amazing! This is impeccably scientific! Surely our female readers are now convinced not to imbibe in excess.

Does that mean that nothing bad ever happens to men who drink? Not the case, according to dear old Pierre-Aime. It’s just that men don’t burn in place, leaving behind forlorn hands and feet, but rather tend towards having flames shoot out of their bodies.

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Sturmius says, that in the northern countries flames often burst from the stomach of persons in a state of intoxication. Three noblemen of Courland having laid a bet which of them could drink most spirits, two of them died in consequence of suffocation by the flames which issued with great violence from their stomachs. We are told by Thomas Bartholin, on the authority of Vorstius, that a soldier, who had drunk two glasses of spirits, died after an eruption of flames from his mouth.

There are the facts, folks. I’ll let them speak for themselves.

Impeccable Science: the perils of hot tea

Today’s impeccable science comes from the 1841 volume A Treatise on Domestic Economy, for the Use of Young Ladies at Home, and at School.

This book has some great advice (eat your vegetables, remember to bathe, don’t drug your babies when they start crying), some dubious advice (treat arsenic poisoning with huge quantities of sugar water, wake up at dawn if you want to be a good American, don’t let babies wear hats), and some downright bad advice (don’t read books unless you want to be mentally ill, and don’t give books to smart children unless you want them to experience “suffering, derangement, disease, and death”).

Our treatise, in the section on healthful food and drink, talks at great length about warm and stimulating beverages. For instance: don’t give your children a lot of sugary coffee (check!), don’t drink too much caffeine if you’re prone to nervousness (check!), and don’t drink very hot tea unless you want all of your teeth to fall out (huh?).

The warning against excessive steaming tea isn’t too far out in left field, as there have been numerous studies noting that scaldingly-hot caffeinated beverages in enormous quantity can cause health problems ranging from esophageal cancer and prostate cancer to bone brittleness and skeletal fluorosis. That said, the book’s Impeccable Science stems from its taking this reasonable premise to a completely illogical conclusion.

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This stern warning begins by describing how, obviously, “if any person should hold a finger in hot water, for a considerable time, twice every day, it would be found that the finger would gradually grow weaker”. (I’ll admit that I haven’t tested this to see if it’s true.)

If you haven’t been too derailed by the image of giving your finger a daily hot water bath, you’ll notice that what follows is somewhere between xenophobic, dentally questionable, and outright incorrect.

The frequent application of the stimulus of heat, like all other stimulants, eventually causes debility. If, therefore, a person is in the habit of drinking hot drinks twice a day, the teeth, throat, and stomach are gradually debilitated… It has been stated to the Writer, by an intelligent traveller, who visited Mexico, that it was rare to meet an individual with a good set of teeth; and that almost every grown person, he met in the street, had only remnants of teeth. On inquiry into the customs of the country, it was found, that it was the universal practice to take their usual beverage almost at the boiling point; and this, doubtless, was the chief cause of the almost universal want of teeth in that Country.

Dear so-called “intelligent traveller”: I’m not sure where you found and surveyed an entire country’s worth of toothless Mexicans, and even if you did encounter some dental atrocities in your travels, your scientific approach is, at best, a fine example of illusory correlation.

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Now I’m going to go drown my sorrows in a cup of black tea. Don’t try to stop me.

Impeccable Science: Finny Tribes, Horse Fishing, and Dental Apparatus

Today’s post highlights science writing which is not only impeccable, but also delightfully florid, with selections from Dr. G. Hartwig’s The Harmonies of Nature, or, the Unity of Creation (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1866). The book itself is an interesting reflection on homeostasis within ecosystems through predator satiation, various instinctual behaviors, and a balance of “passive and active defences“.

The Harmonies of Nature includes some satisfyingly grotesque scientific diagrams, like this cross-section of the “dental apparatus of the Lamprey, & fang fixed to the roof”.

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If that fang fixed to the roof isn’t enough for you, take a gander at this illustration of horses being used to capture electric eels. Hartwig describes it as a “highly entertaining and animated scene”.

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(In the spirit of scientific inquiry/ morbid fascination with this mass of writhing aquatic horses, I had to investigate whether Hartwig’s described equine fishing method was a real thing. Apparently 18th and 19th century scientists were very interested in electrical impulses within animals’ bodies, and did scores of somewhat ghastly experiments including one where the charge from an electric catfish stimulated the sciatic nerve in a recently-amputated frog’s leg, causing the leg to kick a little bell. I can’t make this stuff up.

Anyway, among the electrically-curious minds of history was that of German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, who convinced understandably leery Guayquerie Indians to help him capture electric eels for study and documentation. In his account of this process, the Guayquerie drove about 30 wild horses and mules into the river, where the animals thrashed about, driving the eels out of the mud and subsequently tiring them out by absorbing numerous benumbing shocks. The exhausted eels could then be pulled to shore with small harpoons. You can read the text of von Humboldt’s distressing account of ‘horse fishing’ here.)

Steering our conversation back to The Harmonies of Nature, let me leave you with one of the most impressive and reassuring sentences I’ve read in a good while:

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Under the protection of an Almighty Lawgiver the equilibrium of the inhabitants of the ocean is thus constantly renewed though constantly assailed; and though the scythe of death is indefatigably mowing throughout Neptune’s domain, it is but to celebrate the eternal triumph of life.

From a current perspective, Hartwig’s earnest confidence in the resilience of Nature’s systems is almost touching. Let’s all keep our collective fingers crossed for the oceanic eternal triumph of life.

Impeccable Science: Final Exams Edition

This week’s installment of Impeccable Science is chosen in a spirit of empathy for the many students who are currently mired in final exams while longing for carefree time in the May sunshine.

As we all know, intense study can be harmful to your health. For proof, look at this 1833 volume by Amariah Brigham, a doctor from Connecticut.

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What terrible things can excessive studying do to your body? For starters, it can give you dyspepsia.

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Dyspepsia is generally considered a disease of the stomach primarily. But I apprehend that in a majority of cases, especially among students, it is primarily a disease of the brain and nervous system, and is perpetuated by mental excitement.

It can hamper your immune system’s ability to fight off disease, especially if you’re studying hard while you’re still young.

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I have seen several affecting and melancholy instances of children, five or six years of age, lingering awhile with diseases from which those less gifted readily recover… The chance for the recovery of such precocious children, is in my opinion small, when attached by disease…

And finally, the mental excitement caused by excessive study can case rampant insanity- but only if you’re studying the arts and humanities. Chemists and physicians never suffer from insanity.

In all countries, the disease [of insanity] prevails most among those whose minds are most excited. Aristotle noticed, in his day, the great prevalence of insanity among statesmen and politicians. It is said, the disease prevails most among those whose minds are excited by hazardous speculations, and by works of imagination and taste; and but little among those whose minds are exercised only by calm inquiry. The registers of the Bicetre, in France, show, that the insane of the educated classes consist chiefly of priests, painters, sculptors, poets, and musicians; while no instance of the disease in naturalists, physicians, geometricians or chymists has occurred.

Special Collections under the microscope

Today’s agenda included a field trip to the RISD Nature Lab, a very cool Providence resource that seems to be essentially a laboratory / natural history museum designed for use by artists. It’s the kind of place with stuffed animal heads on the wall:

or, better yet:

 

I was there to chaperon three natural history books from our collections that were going under the microscope:

 

and closer:

 

The purpose of this biblio-magnification is a forthcoming creation by artist (and Special Collections volunteer) Amanda Thackray. Here’s Amanda at the microscope:

 

And here’s a view of a page under the lens:

Even from this distance it’s possible to see the detail of the paper fibers.

Look for future blog posts once the project is complete.

And here, for no particular reason, is a shot of the skeletons at the Nature Lab:

And a giant snake skin above bookshelves with light boxes (by Amanda, as it turns out):