A Point of View: Whose science is it anyway?

  • 11 October 2013
  • From the section Magazine
Scientist holding beaker

Science can only develop by ignoring national borders, says Lisa Jardine.

Since its modern beginnings in the 17th Century, science has been the most global of pursuits. Information and experimentation have criss-crossed national borders, as the curious have tried to explain the properties of natural phenomena.

Marie Curie, discoverer of radium and winner of two Nobel prizes, put the matter characteristically bluntly: "Science is essentially international. It is only through lack of a historical sense that national qualities have been attributed to it."

Not that you would think so if you have followed the science news this week. As the Nobel prizes for 2013 have been announced, each nation's media have rushed to claim the winners as their own.

"Three Americans win joint Nobel prize for medicine," shouted the headline in the New York Times. "A German and two Americans win the Nobel prize for medicine," counter-claimed Der Spiegel.

One of this year's winners is indeed German born and trained, though he has worked for many years in the United States.

On Tuesday the prize for physics went, as expected, to Britain's (or should that be Scotland's) Peter Higgs.

Of the five other physicists who could lay claim to having made crucial early theoretical breakthroughs in relation to the Higgs-Boson particle, it was Francois Englert of Belgium alone who shared the prize with Higgs.

Predictably, every Belgian newspaper I consulted on Wednesday morning ran a banner headline along the lines of "Belgian wins Nobel prize for physics", relegating Higgs to the second or third paragraph.

Higgs and Englert published their theories of how certain particles acquire mass independently in 1964 - Higgs working in Edinburgh, and Englert and his long-term colleague Robert Brout in Brussels.

It has been characteristic of advances in science since the beginning that a single problem is worked on - and ultimately solved at about the same time - by individuals and teams in different countries, who read the same papers, correspond and meet intermittently at academic conferences.

A Belgian (left) and a Briton (right) shared the Nobel physics prize

An example on a much more modest scale from the period closest to my own heart as a historian, the 17th Century, is the investigation of a phenomenon known today as Prince Rupert's drops. As it happens, this too linked scientists in Britain and the Low Countries.

If a globule of molten glass is dropped into a bucket of cold water, it cools to form a tear-shaped drop of a size that fits into the palm of your hand with a long, slender tail.

This tadpole-shaped drop has extraordinary properties. The main body of the tear is remarkably strong - you can stand on it, or hit it with a hammer, without it breaking.

But if the tiniest fragment is broken from the tail, the entire drop shatters and explodes with a loud bang, disintegrating into dust - watch one shatter in this clip from Smarter Every Day on YouTube.

Making a Prince Rupert's drop

This combination of strength and weakness, and its potential explosive possibilities, demanded an explanation.

Prince Rupert's drops seem first to have attracted scientific interest in Germany in the 1640s. By the 1650s they were being examined and discussed in France and the Netherlands, with a whole range of theories being produced concerning the drop's strange properties. One of the earliest recorded attempts at an explanation involved the Dutch polymath Sir Constantijn Huygens and the amateur scientist Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle.

Cavendish was domiciled in Antwerp at the time, exiled from Britain during the Commonwealth period. In a letter to her following a visit, Huygens recorded a conversation they had about the drops - at the time known as "Dutch tears" - in her private chemistry laboratory. There, each week, she apparently "dirtied several white petticoats" worn as overalls to protect her clothing while she conducted experiments.

Enclosing several specimens, Huygens begs her to investigate their properties. "The King of France is as yet unresolved in the question, notwithstanding he hath been curious to move it to an assembly of the best philosophers of Paris."

The duchess replied a week later. She expressed her gratitude to Huygens for seeking her opinion. In her view, the cause of the explosion when the tip of the drop was broken was that there was a tiny quantity of volatile material trapped inside which reacted violently on contact with air.

With a nice feminine touch, she observed that if liquid had somehow been inserted into the drops (actually, the drops contain no liquid) it would have required no greater skill than that employed to make fashionable glass earrings.

"Women wear at their ears for pendants as great wonders, glass bobs with narrow necks as these glasses have tails, and yet it is filled with several colours silks and coarse black cotton-wool, which to my sense is more difficult to put into these glass pendants, than liquor into these glass guns."

The correspondence continued for some weeks, though neither party could come up with anything like an acceptable explanation.

In 1661, the properties of the "glass bubbles" were demonstrated at a meeting of the recently formed Royal Society in London. Several of its founding members had recently returned from continental Europe at the Restoration of Charles II - including the king's German cousin Prince Rupert, who gave his name to the drops. So it is not surprising that specimens of what diarist Samuel Pepys called "Chymicall glasses" came with them.

"The king sent by Sir Paul Neile five little glass bubbles," the minutes of the meeting record, "in order to have the judgement of the society concerning them."

Anxious to impress the king (whose financial support the society was actively seeking) the members responded immediately. More drops were produced and experimented on two days later, and a full report of the experiments given to the society at its weekly meeting by the president.

These were shared with the French traveller Balthasar de Monconys when he attended the Royal Society. He made his own French translation of the report, and discussed the drops and their properties with the scientific community in Leiden when he visited shortly afterwards.

Robert Hooke's drawing of his own compound microscope in Micrographia (1665)

It was my scientific hero Robert Hooke, the society's curator of experiments - the person in charge of those experiments recorded in 1661 - who made an important early contribution to explaining this strange phenomenon, based on the differential cooling of the glass itself after it was plunged into water, and drawing an analogy with the way the locked stones in brick arches collapse instantaneously and violently once the keystone is removed.

Hooke used his new microscope to examine drops which had been shattered, but held intact with strong glue. His contributions to a theoretical explanation cover 11 closely-argued pages in his 1665 Micrographia.

In the 19th Century the great Lord Kelvin added his contribution. But the behaviour of these "Dutch tears" was not fully explained until the 1920s. So multiple connections between at least four European nations contributed to the eventual properly scientific understanding of "Prince Rupert's drops".

I might add that Margaret Cavendish's involvement in the story is not her only appearance in early modern science. Pepys described in his diary a sensational London social event in 1667, when the duchess paid a ceremonial visit to the Royal Society at the invitation of its president and fellows - the only woman to do so before the modern era. Among the experiments carried out for her were several involving Robert Boyle's famous "evacuating engine" or air pump.

It is tempting for the historian to claim landmark events in science on behalf of the nation to which he or she belongs. I have come close to doing as much myself, when I hinted that Hooke might have been the first to provide an explanation for the behaviour of Prince Rupert's drops. Brian Cox begins his recent Science Britannica TV series by announcing: "In these films I want to explore Britain's pivotal role in creating modern science."

But science has always ignored national borders, in pursuit of the fullest possible understanding of nature. Even at the height of the Anglo-Dutch wars in the mid-17th Century, correspondence full of information and data continued to be exchanged uncensored between Dutch scientists and the Royal Society in London.

Higgs and Englert have been quick to point out that the crucial experimental work at CERN that confirmed their Nobel-prize winning theoretical breakthrough was the result of global teamwork, involving thousands of researchers and almost 100 nationalities.

To be true to the benefits of a scientific future we have to honour its equally international past.

Best explanation of Higgs boson?

Scientists' best theory for why different things have mass is the "Higgs field" - where mass can be seen as a measure of the resistance to movement. The "Higgs field" is shown here as a room of physicists chatting among themselves.
A well-known scientist walks into the room and causes a bit of a stir - attracting admirers with each step and interacting strongly with them - signing autographs and stopping to chat.
As she becomes surrounded by admiring fans, she finds it harder to move across the room - in this analogy, she acquires mass due to the "field" of fans, with each fan acting like a single Higgs boson.
If a less popular scientist enters the room, only a small crowd gathers, with no-one clamouring for attention. He finds it easier to move across the room - by analogy, his interaction with the bosons is lower, and so he has a lower mass.

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