The first cabinets of curiosities in the eighteenth century were not cabinets at all. They were rooms full of cabinets and in East Yorkshire there is a country house that still has its original cabinets of curiosities – rooms packed with curious items from the realms of science. Although many country houses had cabinets of curiosities the cabinets here are the only ones to survive in their country house setting.
The country house is called Burton Constable and is well worth a visit.
Find out more about Burton Constable Hall at http://www.burtonconstable.com
The cabinets of curiosities were built up by William Constable (1721 – 1791)
The curiosities are set out in two rooms.
Large items such as this machine for generating static electricity are set out on tables
while smaller items such as these biological specimens are set out in well lit cabinets
I was surprised to see that William also displayed the apparatus he used in experiments.
His geological specimens were kept in what seemed to be a converted writing desk where the specimens could be taken out and examined on the “desk” top.
Like all scientists of his day William kept up to date with developments by reading the latest published books and writing and receiving letters from other scientists just as we use emails today. Even in a quiet corner of his rooms he still found a place for more curiosities such as the nose of a saw fish propped up against the wall.
A visit to William’s cabinets of curiosities may inspire you to set up some at home at home or at school. The Curiosity Box series at http://www.peterdriley.com/books/curiosity-box/ may help to get you started.
Today the house is a museum and in one room the study has been reconstructed to appear as if he had just left it! The study is full of scientific instruments and specimens all carefully laid out with cabinets full of data which he used to construct his theory of evolution due to natural selection. He presented his ideas in his book On the Origin of Species which was published by John Murray in 1859. Nearly 140 years later I saw a first edition of this book at John Murray publishers who published my series of science books – Biology Now!, Chemistry Now! and Physics Now!
Charles Darwin did many experiments in the grounds of his house. He had a greenhouse in which he made discoveries on how plants grew and reproduced.
He had flower beds in which he did further research on plants.
Charles Darwin also used other parts of his grounds for experiments. He set up a lawn plot. This was a rectangular piece of ground which was left unmown so he could find out the types of plants that would grow there naturally. He observed the plot for three years and found that the number of different kinds of plants surviving there went down as the plants competed for survival.
You could set one up easily in the school grounds or perhaps at home and check Charles Darwin’s experiment.
In another experiment on the lawn a slab of stone was placed on the ground and secured into it by two metal rods. This was set up to test the activity of earthworms in the soil and became the Wormstone experiment. Over the years the stone gradually sunk into the ground due to the action of the earthworms burrowing though the soil and turning it over. By careful measuring it was found that the stone sank 2 millimetres a year.
You could set one up easily (without the metal rods) in the school grounds or perhaps at home and see how much the earthworms sink the stone in a year.
At the far end of the lawn a footpath was set up by a meadow and around a wood. It is called the Sandwalk. Charles Darwin used to walk around it to get exercise while he thought about his experiments and ideas.
As he walked around the Sandwalk Charles Darwin used five pebbles to help him count how many times he traveled round it. After one complete circuit he kicked a pebble out of the way and walked on until he had moved all five. By then he had walked about a mile and a quarter.
Selborne is a small village in Hampshire, England. It was the home of Gilbert White (1720 – 1793) for thirty five years. Gilbert was the curate there but he also made observations on plants and animals in the countryside around the village and these were published in a book called The Natural History of Selborne in 1789. This book has been so popular with naturalist that it has never gone out of print since it was published. It has stimulated a great many people to become interested in natural history including Charles Darwin and Gilbert is also considered to be one of the first ecologists.
The countryside around Selborne is still very much as it was in Gilbert’s time and his house called The Wakes is now a museum.
Standing in the garden with a new friend. Behind me is the part of the Wakes that existed in Gilbert’s time and was his home.
Gilbert was a keen gardener and grew wide variety of plants.
In this part of the garden is the six quarters garden. In Gilbert’s time a quarter was a word used to describe a flowerbed so here we have six flower beds and each one is planted to produce blooms through the seasons from spring to early autumn. These quarter beds made me think of setting up some at home or at school – perhaps starting next spring.
Gilbert White lived in the time known as The Age of Enlightenment. This took place between the early seventeenth century and the late eighteenth century. It followed on from the Scientific Revolution begun more than a century before and this meant that Gilbert like many of his contemporaries had an interest in all things scientific. He combined his garden designing and his interest in science by having set up two obelisks called heliotropes which marked the position of the setting of the Sun at the winter solstice and the summer solstice. New versions of these heliotropes are found in the garden today.
The heliotrope to mark the Sun’s position at the winter solstice.
The heliotrope to mark the Sun’s position at the summer solstice.
Gilbert’s inventiveness reached beyond his garden to the grassland next to it known as The Park. In it he had a shelter made from a huge barrel known as a wine pipe.
The path to the wine pipe shelter. Behind the shelter is a wood on a raised chalk slope known as The Hanger.
The barrel has a strong roof to give some protection from bad weather.
There is just room for one person to sit inside the shelter. Gilbert designed it so it could be turned to face away from the wind and the rain. This allowed him to keep on observing the plants and animals around him in all weathers.
As part of my research for a new series of books to be published in 2016 I visited Oxford.
A very brief look at Oxford
At the top of my visit list was the Ashmolean Library. It is the first university museum in the world. The original building was erected in the seventeenth century to provide a home for the collection of objects from around the world made by Elias Ashmole. Since then the collection has steadily grown and is now housed in the building in the photograph.
Walking around the very busy Oxford streets I passed the Radcliffe Camera. The word camera comes from the Latin word for room and the building was completed in 1749 to provide room for the Radcliffe Science Library. Today this library has moved to another building in the city.
Across the road from the Radcliffe Camera is All Souls College which was founded in 1438. It is one of the thirty eight colleges which form the University of Oxford.
I also visited the Bodleian Library, one of the oldest libraries in Europe. In the early seventeenth century lecture rooms were build around a courtyard for the various teaching schools at the university. Above the doorway to each room was the name of the school. Here is the one for the school of natural philosophy.
From Natural Philosopher to Scientist
Natural history is a subject we are familiar with today and involves the observation and description of the plants and animals. Natural philosophy takes these observations of the natural world plus others such as observations in astronomy, chemistry and physics and uses them to develop explanations for them through reasoning. This approach to acquiring knowledge began with the Ancient Greeks, developed further by people such as Robert Grosseteste of Lincoln and Isaac Newton and evolved into many different areas of scientific study. By the nineteenth century it was felt that the term natural philosopher needed replacing with a word to reflect all the different areas of scientific study being undertaken and the term scientist was made up by William Whewell in 1833 and has been used ever since.
Oxford’s earliest teaching room
In another part of the Bodleian Library buildings is the School of Divinity. It houses the earliest teaching room and examination hall in the University.
At one side of the room is a pulpit in which a student stands to deliver his thesis.
On the opposite side of the room is a pulpit in which the professor stands to hear the students work.
Others may gather below them also to hear the student.
Just a thought
I thought this process of delivering a report on research could be adapted for science in the classroom and used in the plenary session. For example when the children have been set a project of making an enquiry using secondary sources such as “finding out about bees” the report could be given by the student coming out to the front of the class standing to one side while the teacher standing at the other side listens to the report (It could be made more comfortable by both student and teacher sitting). It creates a more formal setting for delivering information than just reading out from tables around the classroom and perhaps helps develop greater confidence in public speaking.
While staying in Lincolnshire I visited the truly magnificent Lincoln Cathedral.
In the south-east transept of the building I found the Monument to Robert Grosseteste
and a plaque above the monument describing very briefly his life and work
Robert Grosseteste (1175 – 1253) was a bishop of Lincoln but earlier in his life he had been one of the first chancellors of Oxford University. It was a time when the writings of Aristotle and the Islamic Scientists were reaching Europe and Grosseteste enthusiastically studied them, translated them and taught them to his scholars. He is considered to have greatly advanced the study of science in his time and contributed ideas which are now bound up in the scientific method (see downloadable posters for eight stages in the scientific method in use today).
Although Lincoln Cathedral was never a monastery it has cloisters which in monastic buildings such as Whalley Abbey (see bookshelves in cloisters on page 3 of blog) were used for reflection and thought as the monks studied the books of their times.
Early scientific studies in the Medieval Period in which Grosseteste lived often involved investigations into light. Grossetese was no exception and made early attempts at describing the formation of rainbows.
Robert Grossetese is not often included in a scientists “hall of fame” but a monk who studied and was inspired by his work is Roger Bacon is frequently featured. His work further helped to move science forwards during these times.
For my occasional series of “Science is nearer than you think” I went three miles from home to Towneley Hall In Burnley, Lancashire.
This was the home of Richard Towneley (1629 – 1707) a man who made contributions to several lines of science enquiry.
Building up a science time line
During the course of the year I hope to be building a time line that can be used by KS1, KS2, KS3 and Checkpoint Science. The items in timelines in books and posters have to be kept short because of the sheer volume of topics they have to cover in a given space. Some of my first books – Signposts to Science series
had timelines in them which I had to edit down to make them fit a spread – always a shame to have to leave out an idea.
Here, on the website, with more space, I hope to be able to add a bit more information to the timeline to show how the scientists thought and how these thoughts led them to their conclusions. In the following weeks I plan to post snippets from the time line as I develop it which in its own time will be put on the website. These snippets are aimed at anyone and in places I add references to my books which can be found on the website.
Early thoughts on matter
People have always sought explanations for what they experience in their surroundings. For much of history many of these explanations were embedded in superstition and magic but in Ancient Greece philosophers began to look for rational explanations for their observations of things and events in the world around them.
Thales, generally considered as being the first scientist lived in Miletus, now in Turkey, between about 624 – 547 BCE. He looked around and saw how water could change from a liquid to a solid when it froze and to a gas when it boiled. This link between water and the three states of matter led Thales to believe that everything was made or contained water. He considered water to be the arche or perhaps more simply the primary substance or element of everything.
Although Thales is considered a scientist because he thought up a rational explanation for a phenomenon he did not take other steps, now called the scientific method to justify his explanation. His idea, however, did stimulate other philosophers to think about matter and its composition.
Key Stage 2
Moving up with Science Matter page 28 The water cycle
Key Stage 3
Chemistry Now 11- 14 pages 38 – 39
Reactions to Thales’ idea
Anaximenes (585BCE – 528BCE) was a philosopher in Miletus in the time of Thales and disagreed with his idea about water as the universal element and suggested it was really air. He claimed that as it envelops everything and we need to breathe it in and out to survive it must replace water.
As the thoughts of the philosophers spread they were taken up by philosophers in other places. Xenophanes (about 570 – 478 BCE) lived in Colophon , now a ruin in Turkey and added the idea everything containing the element earth as things grew in it and things fell back to it.
Heraclitus who lived in Ephesus (now a ruined city in Turkey) around 500BCE. From his observations of the world and saw that it was full of change. For example, living things grew, aged and died. Non living things like water also changed forms as Thales had observed. He observed a fire burning and how the materials on it changed their form ending it seemed as flames. From this he believed the universal element was fire.
In addition to identifying four kinds of element the philosophers also ascribed to them specific properties. Water is wet and cold, air is wet and hot, earth is cold and dry and fire is hot and dry.
These ideas and properties led to someone attempting an early theory of everything.
Key stage 3
Chemistry Now 11 – 14 pages 35 – 36
Checkpoint Science 1 pages 124 – 125
To most people science has always been done in laboratories and local areas cannot have any connection with it. This is not true.
First – science was certainly not done in laboratories until about the seventeenth century in Europe, although chemical laboratories had been set up in the Middle East from about the ninth century.
Second – there were some people from almost every occupation almost anywhere who developed an interest in science and often made a contribution to it. This series of notes is taken from my occasional travels to find out about science local and nationally. Perhaps you might like to do the same.
Whalley Abbey and a bestiary
I live in England where there are many ruins of monasteries. They were destroyed by Henry VIII in the sixteenth century but before that they contained books of science which the some of the monks would study and copy and send on to other places. Our local monastery is Whalley Abbey and it was closed in 1537. Since then stone has been taken from it to make other buildings but in one corner of the cloister is a space where the book shelves once stood.
Although there is no evidence that I know of that the shelves may have held some scientific books. There is a chance that they may have held books such as a bestiary – a book of information about the animals of the world. The inspiration for this type of book came from Pliny the Elder (23 – 79 CE) who gathered information from others about the animals of the world. Some of this information was accurate but some was fanciful and the stuff of legends and all went into his books.
In the spirit of the awe and wonder created by a bestiary Caspar Henderson has written a present day bestiary The Book of Barely Imagined Beings based only on accurate information about the animals that share our world. To merge the old with the new I am standing in the bookshelves with it. I whole heartedly recommend the book to scientists young and old.