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More history of science blogging

Posted in miscellaneous on November 5, 2011 by Robert-Jan Wille

Others have noticed our site and put it on a list: If you follow this link, you will find more information about other history of science blogs and even a few articles about it.


A great new source

Posted in digitized sources on May 1, 2011 by Robert-Jan Wille

The very interesting website Het geheugen van Nederland has published 20.000 images of fish, birds and mammals last week. It was even in the newspapers. The images are all from the library of the Zoological Society Natura Artis Magistra, the ‘ Artisbibliotheek’, which is now part of the library of the University of Amsterdam’s.

It is a great source.  You can search for animals, using modern dutch names, modern latin or even the nineteenth century latin names.

Look at this beauty!

A dutch national museum that was never meant to be

Posted in government, laboratory, museum on April 21, 2011 by Robert-Jan Wille

In the 1870s, after the Franco-Prussian war, the art and sciences budget of the Netherlands increased dramatically. If the Dutch ever had an Victorian age in which some dreamt of cathedrals of science, it was then. In 1872-3 nearly 1,5 million guilders (quite a lot at that time) was reserved to upgrade Leiden University and the State Museum of Natural History. The university would get a new zoological laboratory and a new main building (academiegebouw), the state museum would be able to move to a bigger building as well. 

First a new building was envisioned for all three of them. To put the museum and the university laboratory in one building was a major breakthrough but also something to be expected. The relation between the state museum and the university zoologists was at that time better than it had ever been before. Both were lead by German friends of the late Wilhelm Moritz Keferstein (1833-1870).  The state museum’s director was Hermann Schlegel (1804-1884); the chair in zoology at the university was Emil Selenka (1842-1902).

But a new zoological laboratory was soon built somewhere else; Selenka had been asking for it since 1868 and when the money was finally allocated he didn’t want to wait for the others. He had at that time grown impatient with the civil servants of the Dutch state. Maybe he foresaw things.

In the mean time, civil servants decided that it would not be wise either to join the academiegebouw with the new museum, and so they decided to build two new buildings and, well, why not put two committees on it?

A team was sent out to study museums of natural history in other large cities, like Berlin, Paris and London. This team existed of three members. The first was  J. B. A. J. M. Verheyen, a roman catholic and conservative member of parliament. The second was the famous architect Pierre Cuypers, who had developed many churches, who had also developed the new Rijksmuseum and who was to develop the new Amsterdam central train station. The third member was one of the museum’s curators, the liberal evolutionary biologist Ambrosius Hubrecht who also happened to be the son of the secretary-general of the ministry of the Interior. They wrote a report on these foreign musea and based on these visits they came up with a design for the new museum.

They created this:

In my dissertation on late nineteenth century Dutch biologists and the imperial state I will look into the matter with a bit more detail. What I can tell you at the moment is that it was not built in the end. (Well, that is a fact easily induced from the absence of such a building in Leiden.)  

The director of the museum, Schlegel, came with a competing design himself; Hubrecht would leave the museum to pursue a career at the university of Utrecht as professor in zoology; Cuyper would work on other projects. In the 1880s, the allocated money was silently taken away from the national budget. Why?

Was it because Dutch and national museums never were and never will be a winning team?

The cult of the Kraken

Posted in cephalopods, Denmark, fiction, Harting, laboratory, museum on April 8, 2011 by Robert-Jan Wille

In 2010 a new novel by China Miéville was published with the thrilling title Kraken. Miéville is a writer of “weird fiction” whose novels try to move fantasy from the age of Tolkien to the age of steam punk and beyond. The book is a clear example of this. The main character of Kraken is  a twenty-first century curator of the British Museum of Natural History who succeeds in losing a very large specimen of the giant squid Architeuthis dux, a theft that turns out to be the result of a war between different occult sects. Among them is a gang of squid ‘cultists’ who look upon the ‘Kraken’ as their god and who consider a nineteenth century natural historian from Denmark, Johan Japetus Steenstrup as their main apostle.

I will not go into the story into detail but will move on to the fact that Johan Japetus Steenstrup really existed. Those who are able to read Scandinavian languages I refer to his wikipedia site in Danish.  It is a typical mid-nineteenth century man working at the university doing both laboratory and museum research. He was the one who gave the giant squid his scientific name.

What interested me was that I came across a publication of a Dutch zoologist Pieter Harting at the same time that I was reading the novel. It was an article called  ‘Description de quelques fragments de deux cephalopodes gigantiques’, in the Verhandelingen der Koninklijke Akademie van Wetenschappen, 1861. This publication is still used nowadays as a most helpful reference for those who want to study the giant squid or more specifically, its type. Later researchers  also suggested a species called Architeuthis hartingii.

Pieter Harting was at the time director of the zoological museum of the university of Utrecht. He had been an expert in microscopical anatomy and botanical physiology and also wrote on chemistry and geology. He had been a professor at Utrecht university since 1843, teaching students in medicine how to use the microscope. However, only after 1858 he  secured a chair in a specific ‘discipline’: zoology. With this chair came the directorship of the university’s zoological cabinet.

From the 1860s onwards he integrated his microscopical observatory into the zoological cabinet and created a ‘zootomic laboratory’. An important aim of this laboratory was the education-motivated research of marine invertebrates.  Marine invertebrates like molluscs and protozoans were key groups for researchers who not only wanted to fill out the gaps in taxonomy but who also were toying with all kinds of affinities between the species. Many took from Ovid the idea of life being born in the sea: ‘vidi factas ex aequore terras’.

For example, Lamarck, Geoffroy, Milne-Edwards, Darwin and Haeckel were all nineteenth century experts in specific groups of marine invertebrates. Like Darwin and Haeckel, Harting accepted the idea of a genealogical relationship between all species of plants and animals.

I wonder what Harting thought when he first started to dissect the remains of a giant squid, used as he was to do microscopical research of plant cells, slices of human tissue and small amounts of soil. Did he think ‘what on earth am I doing know?’ Or did he have a plan?

To be continued…