Leeds’ Hidden Visionary: Louis Compton Miall and Magic Lanterns

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Professor Louis Compton Miall, Photo by E. E. Unwin

To most current students in Leeds, the name Louis Compton Miall would mean very little. A few might recognise the name from the LC Miall Building, home of the Faculty of Biological Sciences. Our team certainly had never heard of him before we were assigned to create an exhibition on magic lanterns and their relationship with the University of Leeds.

While carrying out research for the exhibition Lighting the Way: Leeds and the ‘Magic’ Lantern, we noticed that Miall’s name kept recurring. It soon became clear that Miall and his pioneering work with magic lanterns have long been overlooked. His innovations were not only crucial to the development of magic lanterns, but to teaching more generally. More on Miall later, first a quick history of the lanterns.

First developed in the 1600s by the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens, magic lanterns were an early form of projection equipment, which used a light source and a series of lenses to show images on a much larger scale than ever before. See this previous blog post for a more detailed discussion of the lanterns’ history and workings.

However, it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that magic lanterns started to be used widely in education – although in this context they were often called ‘optical lanterns’ instead as ‘magic’ was deemed not serious enough. In a darkened hall, a lecturer would deliver a talk accompanied by slides displayed by a specially-trained ‘lanternist’. This format was used for the rest of the nineteenth century, despite the obvious drawback of teaching in the dark and the difficulty of coordination between the lecturer and lantern-operator.

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Magic Lantern in Use During a Biology Lecture
History & Philosophy of Science in 20 Objects. Object 20: Magic Lanterns

Here, the intervention of Louis Compton Miall was pivotal. He was Professor of Biology at The Yorkshire College and its successor the University of Leeds from 1876 to 1907. In order to display his biological specimens more easily to his students, he developed a more stable and powerful lantern which could broadcast images that were visible even with the lights on. Miall could then combine the lantern with specialist equipment such as microscopes or liquid-containing ‘tank slides’, allowing the live demonstration of experiments to an entire lecture hall.

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A Nineteenth-Century Newton and Co. Combined Lantern and Microscope
A. Pringle, The Optical Lantern for Instruction and Amusement (1899)

Professor Miall also altered the set-up of the lantern so it could be operated by the lecturer unaided. He could now seamlessly teach and operate the lantern, without having to interrupt his lectures to communicate to an operator if there were any difficulties. In an article of May 1890 from the Review of Reviews entitled ‘How to Utilise the Magic Lantern; Some Valuable Hints for Teachers’, its author summarises the benefits of Miall’s method:

“The most novel and important points are that the slides are exhibited in a well-lighted room, and all the necessary manipulations are done by the lecturer or teacher without any difficulty.”

Today, in the age of the digital projector, most University staff structure their lectures and seminars around a PowerPoint presentation, which they use to illustrate their points and invite wider discussion. This teaching method, which is so taken for granted today, relies on the innovations of Professor Miall in allowing lecturers to control their own presentations and show them in a lit room.

Without Louis Compton Miall, the whole structure and teaching practices of higher education could thus have been radically different. It is time to recognise Miall’s achievements with magic lanterns at the University of Leeds, and shine a light on this largely unsung educational pioneer.

In the Lighting the Way exhibition, we track the evolution of magic lanterns at the University of Leeds, including highlighting the contributions of individuals such as Professor Miall and other educators to the development of the lanterns’ educational potential. Amongst the objects on display are a lantern produced by the famous Newton & Co. optics; various lenses and accessories used in lecture halls, such as an elbow polariscope; and a small sample of the Museum’s collection of around 5,000 lantern slides, including two mechanical astronomy slides.

Lighting the Way: Leeds and the ‘Magic’ Lantern has been curated by MA Art Gallery and Museum Studies and MA Arts Management and Heritage Studies students in collaboration with the Museum of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine. It will be displayed in the Philosophy, Religion and the History of Science Common Room on the 1st floor of the Michael Sadler Building from 13 December 2018.

More information can be found on the use of magic lanterns in education at Leeds here.

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HPS in 20 Objects Lecture 18: a Cupboard of Dead Bugs

Cupboard of Dead Bugs: Life Lessons from Insects for Economics, Empire and Evolution By Emily Herring

October’s object was well-suited for the month of Halloween. They creep, they crawl, and, in this particular instance, they are very much dead. For the eighteenth lecture in the HPS in 20 Objects public lecture series, PhD students Matt Holmes and Alex Aylward chose to get historical and philosophical about a cupboard of dead bugs. More precisely, a teaching collection belonging to the Museum of HSTM at the University of Leeds. As both speakers demonstrated over the course of the lecture, there is a lot more to be learned from this collection of insect specimen than simply insights into natural history.

Matthew Holmes kicked off the lecture by reminding us of a very important anniversary: 2017 marks the 40th anniversary of the science fiction/horror film Empire of the Ants. The film is very loosely based on a 1905 short story of the same title by H. G. Wells.

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Both the film and the short story feature humans being tormented by organised attacks from super-intelligent ants. While the film, which was of the unintentionally-funny-0%-on-rotten-tomatoes kind, had one critic saying “you’ll be rooting for the ants”, Wells’ celebrated short story went beyond science fiction and tapped into late nineteenth century and early twentieth century fears about the viability of Western empires. The characters of the fictional world in Wells’ story, feared that the highly intelligent insects might eventually form cultures of their own and seek to start their own colonies. Around the time Wells published his ant story, more practical fears linked to agriculture and health encouraged the development of methods designed to control insect pests, also known as economic entomology. People like Bradford-born entomologist L. C. Miall started listing these different methods of control or extermination which included the not very effective “swatting the insects away by hand” technique and various kinds of noxious sprays which had the unfortunate side effect of killing not only the insects but everything surrounding them. Another method was the introduction of insect predators such as birds. In 1866 British sparrows were exported to New York in an attempt to deal with troublesome caterpillars.

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The birds did not however limit themselves to the caterpillars and ended up eating the very crops they were meant to be protecting from the insect pests. Therefore, in his section of the lecture, Matt showed that beyond studies in systematics and comparative anatomy, the teaching collections, like the one we have at the University of Leeds, and the development of new forms of practical biology, cannot be separated from the history of the formation of, and attempts to maintain, empires.

In the second half of the lecture, conducted by Alex Aylward, insects, in particular social insects, were also portrayed as pests, but of a different kind. Alex was not referring to the terrible picnic etiquette of wasps but rather to the theoretical puzzles posed by wasps and other hymenoptera that have been pestering evolutionary biologists for decades. For instance, the division of labour between different members of a hive or a colony translates into differences in structure and behaviour. The queen is usually large and spends her life reproducing while some of the workers will usually be much smaller and sterile. Darwin himself worried that these differences in structure and behaviour between the different members of the society might undermine his theory of evolution by natural selection. Indeed, how do the sterile members of an insect society pass on their specific characters and behaviours? In addition, natural selection is often represented as gradually increasing the fitness – i.e. the ability for an entity to survive and to produce other entities similar to itself – of the entities it acts upon. The fitness of a sterile worker in a colony would therefore be zero. In many bee species, sterile castes possess a sting which they deploy in protecting the nest – bringing their own life to an end. Hence, they fail in achieving both aspects of fitness – survival and reproduction. How could natural selection have possibly allowed this situation to evolve?

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In the 1960s and 1970s attempts to solve these problems involved using the language of economic thinking: costs, benefits, trade-offs, etc. By broadening the notion of fitness to include the reproductive success of others, especially of our close-kin, it might be possible to make sense of the self-sacrificing behaviour of the sterile workers. This was the theory put forth by English evolutionary biologist W. D. Hamilton in the 1960s. If we think of relatedness in terms of shared genetic material rather than simply in terms of parent-offspring, then it becomes apparent that most individuals share as much genetic material with their offspring as with their siblings. In the case of Hymenoptera, the amount of shared genetic material can actually be higher between siblings than between parent and offspring. Certain self-sacrificing behaviours might therefore actually pay off, in terms of extended fitness, by increasing the reproductive output of a close relative, even if the immediate cost is high. Hamilton expressed this in the form of an equation, known as Hamilton’s law, which states the relationship between relatedness, r, the benefit of a behaviour, B, and cost C, in terms of this broader notion of fitness. Hamilton’s work was famously popularised by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (1976).

Over the course of this lecture, insects went from being portrayed as agricultural pests to theoretical pests. Over the past few decades they can also be seen as having gone from being associated with a threat to humankind which needs to be contained, to a man-made ecological disaster in the making. Efforts to contain insect pests led to the development, in the twentieth century, of synthetic pesticides which have not only contributed to endangering many insect species but have also had a detrimental effect on human health. Recent studies have shown that the alarming rate at which the flying insect biomass is dropping puts us on track for an “ecological Armageddon”. Some of the insects in the Leeds teaching collection can no longer be found in nature. Alex therefore concluded the lecture by drawing attention to calls from environmentally-minded commentators for cooperation on a grand scale in order to tackle the problems flagged up by these recent alarming studies.

 

The video of the lecture is below

HPS in 20 Objects Lecture 17: Printing Press

By Richard Bellis

The printing press might not seem to be the most obvious object to include in a series on the history and philosophy of science in twenty objects. After all, it isn’t obviously a scientific instrument and it isn’t used in scientific experiments. Furthermore, printing’s role in science might be seen as simply to make scientific books and papers – whether they contain achievements, discoveries, knowledge or not – more readily and widely available for the scientific community. In that sense, modern computing might be seen as extending print’s function, thus making print both inadequate and obsolete in today’s plugged-in scientific community that ostensively values access and openness in order for science to properly function. But, as Dr Jonathan Topham and PhD student Konstantin Kiprijanov showed in the latest instalment of HPS in 20 Objects, the printing press has played a major role in shaping both how science was communicated, and also the content of science itself – raising pertinent questions for today’s increasingly digitised world.

And today’s world is indeed a world away from the ‘hand press era’ of printing, so the first order of business was to introduce the audience to the printing press held by the Museum of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine at the university. Konstantin, with one hand white-gloved, kicked things off with a brief overview of the objects in question, before Jon put the Museum’s objects in historical context. I say objects (plural) because as Konstantin immediately made clear, there were a huge range of items and tools that were necessary in order to make printed pages: from individual pieces of type that held the letters, through composing sticks where the ‘compositor’ ‘made up’ the words and sentences that were to be printed, to the ‘form’ where completed lines of type would be secured into place, ready for placement into the press, inking, and printing. Jon then highlighted that what was being described was not so much a set of objects as a complex series of related processes that skilled labourers undertook with a specific goal in mind – printing. Indeed, the press held by the Museum – an iron press from the Victorian era – was originally purchased in order to teach English students about hand printing in the 1970s. Even on the purchase of the university’s press, it was outdated as mechanised presses were used for virtually all commercial printing. However, the press is still valuable as a teaching tool for exploring printing: just what did it take to print Shakespeare? And what of science?

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Figure 1: Konstantin explains how printing presses worked in the ‘hand press’ era.

Naturally, the place to start in exploring the last question was a book. Or two history books. Elizabeth Eisenstein’s landmark work on printing (The Printing Press as an Agent of Change) emphasised that the printing press historically was an agent of change, facilitating the circulation of texts and stimulating science from the fifteenth century onwards. She claimed that more reliable knowledge was imbued by the ‘fixity’ of the printed page. Against this last claim Adrian Johns has more recently argued (in The Nature of the Book) that such fixity did not occur, on the contrary, the author’s meaning – and by extension knowledge – in scientific texts was ‘riotously uncontrollable’ until social conventions regarding the treatment of printed text was built up from the seventeenth century. Such a picture emphasises that whilst technology like the printing press can clearly have a huge impact on culture, it does not determine social life. So, when the mechanisation of print in the nineteenth century began to fundamentally shift the conditions in which communication could take place, there was nothing certain about what would follow.

A key development in the nineteenth century was that the increasing mechanisation of printing helped to cheapen books for an increasingly voracious reading public. New types of printed objects became more widely circulated, with newly formed scientific magazines appealing to a wide audience. Often such journals were targeted at busy, practical men (and not women), which imbued knowledge claims with a certain ‘factness’ that lessened complexity in order to emphasise practicality. Furthermore, the audiences for these magazines were encouraged to contribute to them, creating a lively and rapid exchange of ideas on diverse subjects between diverse people. Such exchanges in the periodical press were vital to new fields of inquiry like electricity.

Another area in which science publishing greatly expanded in the nineteenth century was in publishing schoolbooks. Richard Phillips, a schoolbook publisher, once quipped that he could wrap the world round twice with the paper he had used in printing some six million books. These books were specifically concerned with learning facts for practical use by students in an industrial age. Furthermore, the explosion of print and of popular science meant that ideas of evolution were put at the heart of Victorian culture by publications like Vestiges of Natural History of Creation.

Konstantin then demonstrated the importance of printing in shaping the way we think about chemistry, and what we see as chemical knowledge. The visual language of chemical-structure formula was co-created through a desire to represent chemical structure in a way that adhered to chemical theory, but was also practical for printing in chemical journals. The lines and letters that were used were basic components of printing, that were expertly manipulated by compositors in order to represent chemical structure on a printed page, ultimately allowing the formula to circulate and become ‘real’, in the sense that they described the compound and also the spatial relation of atoms between parts of the compound.

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Figure 2: An example of how compositors made chemical formula printable in the nineteenth century

Jon then continued the visual theme by examining changes in the technology of printing images in the nineteenth century. Fields like geology created a new ‘visual language’ through the use of the new printing technique of lithography. This was a chemical printing process (wax and acid were applied to limestone, and when wetted, ink would only adhere to the waxy parts which would print when impressed onto a page), and offered remarkable graphical qualities. The increased ability to render texture, for example, allowed more information regarding the surfaces of rocks and stones to be printed and circulated for geologists; a practical feature of print enabled the advancement of science.

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Figure 3: Jon explains the advantages of lithographic printing

In concluding the talk, Jon returned the subject to modern publishing, undergoing as it is, a digital revolution. What does this mean for the future of science? Of course, it is unclear. Greater transparency in the process of publishing academic material might be expected, but as was emphasised throughout the lecture, this will depend on the social conditions in which publishing takes place. What was clear from the lecture, was that the changes in the technology of publishing and reading will have far reaching consequences for scientific endeavour and the public, just as changes in publishing in the nineteenth century did.

 

Lecture Video, with thanks to Paul Coleman

HPS in 20 Objects Lecture 16: Irene Manton’s Slides

By Simon Newey

In 1946 Irene Manton became the first female professor at the university of Leeds. Her work on botany using electron microscopy to study cell structures in greater detail than ever before, contributed to ground breaking discoveries made in these fields, as well as earning her several academic honours never before held by a woman. While at Leeds, she covered the walls of offices and labs with prints and artworks, many of them from east Asia, or schools influenced by east Asian art. These art works often hung next to prints of electron or ultra violet microscopy.

These images often had a striking resemblance to one another, leading one visitor to confuse artworks for micrographs. They later commented on “that mad professor at Leeds who colours her micrographs, cuts them up and puts them on the wall”. Manton herself acknowledged the similarity between these images, and made clear that she did not see her collection as art, but “as working tools with which the scientist endeavours to comprehend certain aspects of the world which are not science.”

In this talk, Nicola Williams, Alice Murphy and Steven French set out to help us understand Irene Manton and the strange connection between art and science, that led her to amass this collection of images.

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Nicola Williams began the talk with a fascinating account of Manton’s life and personality. Manton was presented as a force of nature, whose background, intelligence, and personality allowed her to break through the glass ceiling of her day. Manton devoted her life to exploring the structures of plant cells using cutting edge electron and ultra violet microscopy. This new technology could give unprecedented insights about the microscopic world, but required skilful interpretation. Scientific models had to be developed from a range of (often unclear) images, produced with different technologies, at different length-scales. Manton’s skilful use of this new technology allowed her to make important breakthroughs, including successfully identifying structures within cilia and flagella.

Manton was skilfully presented through a broad range of objects associated with her life. From sketches of plant structures, she made during her school days, to the Philips 100 Electron Microscope with which she worked, and of course her art collection. Nicola presented us with Manton as a complex character with a fascinating lifelong attachment to art.

Alice Murphy then took over to discuss representation in art and science, and the connections between Manton’s art collection and her work as a microscopist. Alice began by discussing the philosophical question of whether art can ever be a valuable source of insight or knowledge. Plato believed it could not. He believed that it did not stem from a serious knowledge or understanding of the subject, and so, was likely to mislead. Recently however, Catherine Elgin has argued that art departs from truth only in the way that scientific models do, and so should not be regarded as misleading, but helping us to a particular understanding.

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Alice began by using examples of satirical drawings to show how departing from the form of the physical object allows the artist to represent other aspects of their subject. She then proceeded to show the same themes in cubist and expressionist works, as well as Chinese and Japanese art which influenced these schools, often using examples taken from Manton’s collection. She compared this to the ideal gas law, as an example of a scientific model that departs from the dynamics of actual gasses, in order to exemplify particular dynamics of these gasses which can be hard to discern without these idealisations. In both cases an informative and explanatory representation of a subject is being achieved by idealising away from the details of the actual subject. Alice concluded with a fascinating discussion of the similarities and differences between these types of representation.

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Finally, Steven French concluded with a discussion of observation in art and science, and the role that developments in scientific observation within the lifetime of Irene Manton are likely to have had in forming her attitude to art. Manton’s professional life was spent working with a range of microscopes, using electrons, ultra violet, and visible light to produce images of microscopic structures. These were often cutting edge technologies, and could be extremely difficult to operate and interpret. The makers of the Philips 100 electron microscope themselves described successful use of the microscope as “being rather more of an art than a science”.

The images produced by these highly technical instruments are very different from traditional notions of observation. Manton worked hard to interpret these images, sorting informative data from often unclear micrographs. It is easy to see why schools of art work that took a broader of view of how images represent, might have appealed to her. Steven continued with a discussion of whether or not these kinds of microscopy can really be considered as observation, given the exceptionally technical methods needed to make sense of them. He concluded by returning to the idea that an image could be representative, even if it does not resemble observation in the traditional sense. This possibility can clearly be seen in both the art collection, and the technical work, of Irene Manton.

HPS in 20 Objects Lecture 14: Coral, or, A fragile enigma brings lessons from the shallows

Blog by Arthur G. Carlyle

 

Dr Ellen Clarke and PhD student Emily Herring promised to transport us to a tropical paradise in this fourteenth instalment of the HPS in 20 Objects Lectures, and they did not disappoint. The object of April’s lecture was coral, a small marine invertebrate closely related to the sea anemone and jellyfish. Corals, Ellen and Emily told us, are, and have been, the source of an enigma: corals disrupt the human tendency to divide life into discrete categories.

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Animal, vegetable, or mineral? It seems easy to know to which of these options any particular lifeform belongs, but as Emily quickly pointed out, which of the boxes corals belong in have been historically tricky. In fact, before the 18th century, most naturalists used to believe that corals must be either a mineral or a plant! The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle even had a word, ‘zoophytes’, for organisms that fell somewhere between the categories of “plant” and “animal”, and it’s likely that he included corals in this category.

So confounding are corals, that an explanation for it found its way to into Roman poetry where Ovid offers a mythological account of its existence. Most of us know about the great hero, Perseus, who, in the Metamorphoses, Ovid describes as killing the Gorgon, Medusa. Medusa, it’s told, had the ability to turn those that gaze upon her into stone. On his journey back home with Medusa’s, Perseus slays a sea monster with the aid of his new trophy. After, he washes his hands in the salt water, placing Medusa’s head on some underwater plants such that it would not be bruised by the sand. The powers of the head, Ovid tells us, affected the plants such that they turned to stone. Water nymphs see this, and after dispersing the seeds of the plants, fill the oceans with corals—plants that are soft below the waves but turn to stone above the water’s surface.

Not everyone believed corals to be plants or minerals, however. Al-Biruni (973-1048), an Iranian scholar hypothesised that corals were neither a plant nor a mineral, but rather an animal because they responded to touch. This idea didn’t really take off until the eighteenth century, however, until a French physician by the name of Jean-André Peyssonnel (1694-1759) tested corals in a variety of different ways. Doing this, he noticed that they responded to the touch. This observation led Peyssonnel to believe corals were animals.  By the 1770s it was believed that the coral reefs were caused by the growth of the animals.

Henri Bergson (1859-1941) would later ask what the primary difference between animals and plants were. He believed that the overlap of animal and plant properties that existed in organisms such as corals blurred the boundaries between the two kingdoms. When asked which characteristics animal life had that plant life did not, and vice-versa, Bergson concluded that no such characteristic existed; plants and animals then must not be static entities, according to Bergson, but points on a spectrum.

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Emily talking about Bergson (photo credited to Alex Aylward, follow on Twitter at @_amaylward)

Around the same time Bergson was working, the zoologist Julian Huxley (1887-1975), started forming his own metaphysics inspired on Bergson’s writing. Huxley began thinking about what it meant to be an individual. Regarding the matter, he concluded that individuality was not a static category, but was rather like everything else in the living world in that it was something that had evolved and continued to evolve. Individuality came in degrees, according to Huxley, such that an individual coral polyp could be considered an individual, but so couldn’t a coral colony.

The lecture then turned from history to philosophy as Emily handed over to Ellen. Ellen then explained a contemporary problem in biology and philosophy of biology that corals stand as an example of. Huxley’s question, “where is the individual now?” is still pertinent. How do biologist and philosophers of biology know how to distinguish a single living thing from many? This problem isn’t as difficult for many of the organisms that we interact with on an everyday basis, but some organisms are not as easy to distinguish the individual from the many. Corals, as you might have guessed given the lecture’s topic, are such a problematic case.

Many corals are colonial, meaning that at some point in their life, the coral polyp will begin to “bud”, making a colonial copy of itself. When doing this, a polyp will either rip itself in two with each half regenerating into a full polyp, or cells will begin to grow outside of the polyp making a larger object. Understanding this phenomenon, the scientist and philosopher are confronted with a problem: what is the individual? Is a polyp a separate organism? Or is the polyp only a small part of a larger organism? The answer is unclear.

Coloniality isn’t the only puzzle one faces when studying corals. Colder water is better at sustaining life than warm water. To help survive the warm water in which they live, some corals make friends in the form of symbiotic relationships with a species of algae that lives inside its tissue. The algae give the coral nutrients and oxygen, and the coral gives the algae protection and carbon dioxide and other required nutrients.

Because of this and other examples of symbiotic relationships, some have argued that a host and all of its symbionts count as a larger organism—a “holobiont” organism. However, this position has not persuaded everyone. Instead of understanding the individual as the larger “holobiont” organism, some biologists and philosophers have suggested that it is more accurate to view the host and its symbionts as separate organisms. Once again the answer is unclear, and the conversation regarding it continues.

Coloniality and symbiosis illustrate how difficult it is to determine what counts as an individual coral. These cases and the puzzles that they reveal are still discussed lively today as much (if not more) than they were back when Bergson and Huxley investigated the issue. What Ellen and Emily’s presentation showed us, is that individuality comes in degrees and that there are no neat, tidy boxes in biology.

The lecture ended with Ellen speaking about the current disappearing coral reefs brought upon by threats such as invasive predators, pollution, and rising sea temperatures. In times of the stress brought upon by these and similar threats, the corals eject their symbionts, causing them to lose their colour and “bleach”, which can cause them to die if they don’t quickly regain their symbionts. Although these events are known to have happened before, the amount of bleaching that has recently occurred leads experts to predict that most of the world’s coral reefs will be destroyed by 2050. Despite this bleak revelation, a ray of hope is illuminated: humans are attempting to save the reefs, such as marine parks, coral reef nurseries, “designer reefs”, and coral probiotics. Ellen also showed us that reefs have disappeared before, but given their resilience have come back. This led her to conclude that the reefs may have a better chance of recovering from the destruction we are causing on this planet than we have—corals may be back way after we are gone.

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The whiteness of the reef means that it has been bleached. (Photo credited to Laura Sellers, follow on Twitter at @LauraSellers11).