I am thrilled and honored that the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the Graduate Center, CUNY, has selected me to be the first Leon Levy/Alfred P. Sloan Fellow in Science Biography for 2019–2020. I’ll be working on my biography of Oliver Sacks alongside fine biographers Abigail Santamaria, David Greenberg, Channing Joseph, and Matthew McKnight.
Published in the Wall Street Journal, Dec. 29, 2017
A catalog of 75 colors and their histories, from lead white to pitch black. Laura J. Snyder reviews ‘The Secret Lives of Color’ by Kassia St. Clair.
The Swedish apothecary Carl Wilhelm Scheele was studying the element arsenic in 1775 when he came across the yellowish-green compound copper arsenite and recognized its commercial potential as a pigment. Soon “Scheele’s green” was used to produce wallpaper, fabric, and artificial flowers and fruits. Charles Dickens was keen to redecorate his entire house in the fashionable shade. Fortunately, he reconsidered. People were dying from the arsenic-laced items: a child who sucked on fake grapes, a flower maker—even, reportedly, Napoleon Bonaparte, who perished in exile on St. Helena island in a damp room covered in green wallpaper.
Kassia St. Clair, a freelance journalist and a former books and arts editor at the Economist, recounts the tale of this perilous pigment in her charming book “The Secret Lives of Color.” The book’s short chapters—“something between a potted history and a character sketch for the 75 shades that have intrigued me the most,” as she puts it—grew out of a column she writes for Elle Decoration and retain the appealing conversational tone of a design magazine.Read more
Published in the Wall Street Journal, Oct. 20, 2017
Oliver Sacks Travels Down “The River of Consciousness”
Madagascar’s star orchid intrigued Darwin. He inferred a moth must exist that could reach its nectar.
After roiling the world by publishing his book “On the Origin of Species,” Charles Darwin retreated to his estate’s conservatories, not to putter about in retirement but to seek further evidence for his theory of evolution by natural selection. His greenhouses became, in the words of Oliver Sacks, “engines of war, from which he would lob great missiles of evidence at the skeptics outside.”
Sacks, the neurologist and writer who died in 2015 at age 82, relished writing about Darwin. “The River of Consciousness,” a collection of 10 previously published essays, reveals Sacks as a gleeful polymath and an inveterate seeker of meaning in the mold of Darwin and his other scientific heroes Sigmund Freud and William James.Read more
Published in Harvard Magazine, July–August, 2017
BLANCHE (AMES) AMES and her husband, Oakes Ames, professor of botany at Harvard and director of the Arnold Arboretum, were in the middle of the Yucatan jungle when their car stalled. As Oakes and the driver stood by helplessly, Blanche pulled a hairpin from her chignon, extracted a bullet from her revolver, and set to repairing the carburetor. She started the car—to this day, no one knows how—and the expedition continued.
Published in the Wall Street Journal, Jun. 2, 2017
The Birth of Wisdom
It wasn’t until recently—the late 1800s—that we knew for sure where babies come from. Laura J. Snyder reviews ‘The Seeds of Life’ by Edward Dolnick.
On an autumn night in 1677, a Dutch civil servant named Antoni van Leeuwenhoek rose from his bed immediately after intercourse with his wife. He rushed to his study, lit a candle and examined a drop of his semen with his microscope. In shock he watched as tiny eels darted this way and that.
Leeuwenhoek was the first to realize that these “little animals”—sperm—existed in the semen of healthy men and were a crucial part of reproduction. But it would be almost 200 years before anyone could answer that most fundamental question: How are babies made? Edward Dolnick, former chief science writer of the Boston Globe, recounts the history of the search for an answer in his entertaining book “The Seeds of Life.”
Published in the Wall Street Journal, Apr. 14, 2017 5:10 p.m. ET
A Zoo in Dickensian London
Society ladies and men of science came to visit Tommy the 2-foot tall chimpanzee. All were awed by his resemblance to a human child. Laura J. Snyder reviews “The Zoo” by Isobel Charman.
A curious sight greeted passengers boarding the Bristol-to-London coach one autumn day in 1835: occupying one of the seats was a 2-foot tall chimpanzee dressed in a tattered white shirt. His travel companion was Devereux Fuller, the head keeper of the London Zoo, who had just purchased Tommy off a ship that brought him from Gambia. The two had walked, hand in hand, along the quayside to the waiting carriage.
Isobel Charman, a television producer, introduces us to Tommy in “The Zoo,” her sprightly tale of the London Zoo from its conception in 1824 to the death of its longtime president in 1851.
Published in the Wall Street Journal, Dec. 6, 2016 7:04 p.m. ET
The Lady Computers
Williamina Fleming, who had originally been hired by the head of the Harvard Observatory as a maid, devised a classification system of 10,000 stars. Laura J. Snyder reviews “The Glass Universe” by Dava Sobel.
When astronomer John Herschel captured the first glass photograph in 1839—a picture of his father’s 40-foot telescope—he could hardly have imagined that before century’s end stargazers would be able to glimpse on glass the entire firmament. In “The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars,” science writer Dava Sobel recounts the story of a group of remarkable women who read the secrets of the skies on glass photographic plates, discovering new worlds in the heavens while forever altering the scientific world below.
In the 1880s, the Harvard Observatory was led by Edward Charles Pickering, an astronomer focused on photometry: measuring the perceived brightness of stars. Up to this time, Ms. Sobel explains, “brightness, like beauty, was defined in the eye of the beholder.” Pickering aimed to establish a scientific scale for brightness—a project requiring thousands of calculations based on stellar observations.
Published at ted.com, May 23, 2016.
A memorable conversation with Oliver Sacks reveals what might have been his greatest attribute: undying curiosity.
I remember knocking at his door, nervously clutching an inscribed copy of my book The Philosophical Breakfast Club and a bag from a local chocolatier. I hoped I had chosen my gifts well. He had written to tell me how much he enjoyed reading the book — he had even put it on a list of “Five Science Biographies that Inspired Me” — and I remembered hearing somewhere that he adored dark chocolate. I was nervous: Would I bore him? Was I wrong about the chocolate?
Out popped Oliver Sacks, peering at me uncertainly. His prosopagnosia, or face blindness, made him unable to recognize me from my author photo. When I told him who I was, he engulfed me in a great big bear hug. Pulling back, he gestured to his faded T-shirt from the University of Rotterdam in the Netherlands. “I wore this in your honor,” he proudly announced, knowing that I was finishing up a book about science and art in the Dutch Golden Age.Read more
Published in the Wall Street Journal, Jan. 26, 2016
Science, Sorcery and Sons
Kepler believed in witches. He probably even wondered about the potions his mother brewed. But when she was accused, he came to her aid.
More than 300 years after Salem’s famous trials, American popular culture remains preoccupied with the supposed witches of 17th-century Massachusetts. But we do not hear much about the women accused of witchcraft across the ocean during the same period in Württemberg, Germany. In “The Astronomer and the Witch: Johannes Kepler’s Fight for his Mother,” Ulinka Rublack, a professor of early modern history at the University of Cambridge, introduces us to one of these witches, Katharina Kepler, who was tried in Württemberg in 1615-21.
Katharina was the mother of Johannes Kepler, a key figure in the Scientific Revolution that had begun to sweep Europe. In 1609, as court astronomer to Emperor Rudolph II of Prague, Johannes used the remarkable naked-eye observations of his predecessor Tycho Brahe to discover that the planets orbit the sun in paths that are elliptical—overthrowing the belief in circular orbits that had held since Aristotle’s time and strengthening the arguments for a heliocentric universe. Johannes was a deeply religious Lutheran whose scientific work was imbued with spiritual beliefs. He cast horoscopes, listened to the “music of the spheres” and understood the cosmos to be a living organism possessed of a soul. Like most people of his time, he believed in the existence of witches.
Published in the Wall Street Journal, Apr. 10, 2015
Science Books That Made Modernity
Darwin’s radical ideas were accepted surprisingly quickly by an English public already steeped in science.
Thomas De Quincey claimed that certain books existed only to teach their readers, while others changed the world by transforming and motivating them. The first he called a “literature of knowledge,” the second, a “literature of power.” In “Visions of Science” James A. Secord, a professor at Cambridge, highlights seven powerful books from the 1830s that altered their age.
At the time, English society was undergoing radical change. New discoveries were altering the conception of the natural world. New technologies—steamships, railways and telegraphs—were transforming the pace of life. All this was exhilarating, but also frightening.Read more