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Category Archives: Science

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Seventy Two

Ignaz Semmelweis (1818 – 1865)

Sometimes you discover something and can’t persuade the powers that be that you have made a major breakthrough. This was the fate that befell the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, the Hungarian obstetrician, Ignaz Semmelweis.

Our hero studied Law at the University of Vienna in 1837 but switched to medicine the following year and after gaining his doctorate in 1844, decided to specialise in obstetrics. He took up his first appointment in 1846 as an assistant in the Vienna General Hospital’s maternity ward. There were two wards, A which was the preserve of doctors and trainees, and B which was staffed by midwives only. In the mid 19th century giving birth was a precarious business, often proving fatal to either the mother or the baby or, in some cases, both.

Clinic A had a phenomenally high mortality rate – about 10%, mainly as a result of puerperal fever, whereas the mortality rate in Clinic B was a still shocking but lower 2%. Women who came to the hospital – they were mainly from the lower classes – tried as best they could to avoid Clinic A because of its fearsome reputation. Many preferred to give birth in the streets where the mortality rate was considerably lower. Why was that, Semmelweis wondered?

The duties of the doctors at the hospital were many and varied. They would routinely examine diseased corpses in the mortuary, carrying out autopsies to determine cause of death or dissections to further their knowledge of the human anatomy, before moving on to the maternity ward. Whilst we now tend to regard, or at least hope, that medics are as close to the Platonic paradigm of cleanliness but in Semmelweiss’ time it was rare for a medic to wash their hands between dealing with patients. He noted the discrepancy between mortality rates where doctors were involved and where midwives, who did not handle dead bodies, were in attendance and concluded that some form of cadaverous material picked up from the stiffs was contributing to the high incidence of puerperal fever.

Acting upon these observations and hypotheses, Ignaz decided that he and his colleagues should was their hands in a solution of chlorinated lime, principally to remove the whiff of putrefying flesh, after handling dead bodies. The results were astonishing with fatality rates plummeting and after the experiment had been carried out for a while, deaths were a thing of the past. Concluding that he was on to something, although he could not provide a rational explanation as to why it worked as he knew nothing about germs, Semmelweiss began to promulgate his views. This led to great outburst of hand-wringing but not hand-washing amongst the medical profession, many of whom were outraged by the suggestion that their hands could be unclean. They were gentlemen, after all.

In revolutionary Vienna, Semmelweiss was seen as a trouble maker and was soon dismissed from his post. Surprise, surprise, the abandonment of the hand washing policy saw mortality rates rise to their pre-Ignatian levels. Frustrated, Semmelweiss wrote increasingly furious letters and articles to the medical community, accusing them of cold-hearted murder. Accounts of his discovery were printed in journals such as the Lancet. Semmelweiss repeated his successes whilst working in hospitals in Budapest in the 1850s and in 1861 published his theory and statistical demonstrations in a book called The Etiology, Concept and Prophylaxis of Childbed Fever. It was not well received.

Worse still, he became an obsessive on the subject at a time when he started to develop signs of the onset of what might have been Alzheimer’s. Even his wife thought he was verging on insanity and in 1865 he was lured into a mental asylum in Vienna . Realising he had been trapped, Semmelweiss tried to make good his escape, but was detained, put in a straightjacket and given a good hiding by the warders for good measure. Two weeks later he died from his injuries which had gone gangrenous.

It was only when Louis Pasteur was able to provide a theoretical explanation of the causal link between germs and disease that Semmelweiss began to be regarded as the genius that he was and was able to claim his place as a pioneer of antiseptic policy. For this, Ignaz, you are a worthy inductee to our Hall of Fame.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link

Irony Of The Week (6)

Whatever your view on climate change, soaring temperatures in the Arctic leading to ice melting and heavy rain have had some amusing consequences.

In 2008 the Norwegian government built the Global Seed Vault deep into the side of a mountain on Spitsbergen to lodge a million varieties of seeds with the aim of preserving our food supply, come what may. Of course, the unthinkable has happened – meltwater has inundated the entrance tunnel, giving the precious seeds a dousing. “It was not in our plans to think that the permafrost would not be there and that it would experience extreme weather like that,” said a spokesperson. With planning like that, I bet they forgot a packet of lettuce seeds.

And then I read this week that a team of 40 scientists from five Canadian universities have had to abandon an expedition into the Hudson Bay to research the impact of climate warning. The reason for putting the four-year project on ice – warming temperatures created perilous ice conditions off the coast of Newfoundland, making it dangerous for their ships to go any further. So these climate change warriors became victims of climate change but at least they got their hands on some empirical evidence.

A Measure Of Things – Part Five


As an unreconstructed male, I have only ever had a very passing interest in jewellery and the terminology applied to describing the qualities of the bijou leave me nonplussed. I don’t really know my 18 carats from my 9. What do these descriptions signify? And what exactly is a carat?

It all started with the edible pods of Ceratonia silique or the Carob Tree. Traders in the Middle East weighed gold and gemstones using carob seeds in the belief that of all the seeds available, the carob was the most uniform in mass. In reality it was no more standard in size and weight than any other seed but let’s not spoil a good story. The solidus was introduced into widespread circulation by the emperor Constantine. It was almost pure gold and weighed around 4.5 grams or the equivalent of 24 carob seeds.

The fallacy that all carob seeds were uniform may have meant that you might have got a good bargain or were ripped off but at least it provided the etymological root for the unit of measure we now associate with gold and diamonds. The Greeks called the seed keration and this term was modified by the Arabs to qirat. It appeared in Italian as carato and first appeared in English sometime in the 15th century as carat.

Each country had its own standard for a carat which must have been very confusing for traders. In Cyprus a carat was 187 milligrams in weight whilst in Livorno it was 215.9. In London the carat was set originally at 205.409 milligrams but in 1887 it was adjusted to 205.303 milligrams. So confusing was the situation for international traders and consumers of jewellery that there was a demand for international standardisation.

This task fell to the General Conference of Weights and Measures which had been established in 1875 and met every 4 to 6 years in Sevres in France to thrash out agreement on internationally accepted units of measure. It was the Fourth Conference meeting in 1907 that turned its collective minds to the question of the carat and they concluded, not unreasonably, that what was good enough for the Romans was good enough for them. A carat or, more precisely, the metric carat was set at 200 milligrams, a figure that can easily be subdivided into tens and hundreds. Pure gold was 24 carats.

Talking of gold, the designations that apply to jewellery saying that it is 9 carat or 18 carat gold merely detail the amount of pure gold in the piece. 24 carat is as high as you can go – this is pure gold. 22 carat gold has 22/24ths of pure gold or around 91.6% whereas 18 carat has around 75% and 9 carat around 37.5%. The higher the carat rating the more expensive the piece but ironically, the lower the gold content the stronger and more durable the metal is. When you are accused of penny-pinching for going for the lower carat, just remind your beloved that it will be harder wearing. It might just work!

When it comes to diamonds, a carat is used to describe how much it weighs and this has been the case since around the 1570s. Each carat can be subdivided into hundredths, known as pointers in the jewellery trade. When used to describe gems, a carat has the same value as it has when applied to gold – 200 milligrams. A one carat diamond weighs 200 milligrams whereas one described as a 0.5 carat diamond will weigh 100 milligrams, one that is 0.25 carat, 50 milligrams – you get the picture. Its carat, together with clarity, colour and cut, goes a long way to determining its value.

Quacks Pretend To Cure Other Men’s Disorders But Rarely Find A Cure For Their Own – Part Fifty Five



For the seasoned toper a hangover is an occupational hazard. Some regard it as nature’s way of saying that you overdid it a bit last night, old boy. A real humdinger may provoke the resolution never to let a drop pass your lips ever again but, in my experience, these thoughts are even more short-lived than the resolutions we make at New Year. Many of us have our tried and tested methods of dealing with the problem – mine is to have a hair of the dog as quickly as I can – but wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could pop a pill that inured from the effects of a hangover?

Well, this is what Quaff-Aid purported to do. It was manufactured by Amber Laboratories in Milwaukee , a subsidiary of yeast processor, Milbew Inc, who were looking around for new uses for the by-products from the brewing process.  The pills, made from concentrated brewer’s yeast, were launched in the state of Wisconsin in the Spring of 1955. The adverts, as you might expect, were fulsome in their praise of the efficacy of the tablets. “No regrets tomorrow for feeling good today”, they screamed. They went on to promise “a wonderful time…every time. You’ll be poised, assured, relaxed; have a wonderful sense of light-hearted freedom from worry because you know your fun won’t be spoiled”. “Goodbye to hangovers!” Indeed.

Not unsurprisingly, packets of Quaff-aid flew off the shelves of local pharmacists and bars. Why wouldn’t you? For just 98 cents you could get your hands on a Carry Home Party Pak, which consisted of five two-tablet packs. What’s more the Party Pak came with some paper napkins and the helpful advice that a party hostess could hand the tablets out to her guests before the evening’s festivities got into full swing. I’ve been to a few parties where dubious looking tablets have been handed out, but never Quaff-aid. And I’m not sure why you need a napkin to help you ingest a tablet/ Perhaps they were envisaging a crowd of Sir Les Pattersons.

So encouraging were sales that Amber Laboratories were girding their loins to launch their miracle potion nationwide when disaster struck. In October 1956 the Amber Laboratories in Buffum Street were visited by officials from the US Food and Drug Administration. They seized around a quarter of a million tablets, claiming that the product was no damn use. Perhaps one of the officers had had a skin full and was rather disappointed, despite having summoned the assistance of Quaff-aid, to have a thumping head. Who knows?

This prompted a furious response from the Director of Research at Amber, Sheldon Bernstein, who was reported by the Milwaukee Journal as saying that the vitamin Bs in Quaff-aid were essential for a speedy recovery from a bout of over-indulgence. But the FDA would not be budged and the product disappeared as quickly as it arrived and, doubtless, more speedily than a hangover.

Amber Laboratories, despite this setback, prospered, generating by the mid 1980s sales in excess of $10 million from manufacturing yeast extracts and animal feed supplements and distilling alcohol for industrial and domestic use. It was acquired by Universal Foods in 1983.

Drugs Of The Week

If you want to get high, use your loaf, I learned this week. TV presenter, Angela Rippon, failed a routine drugs test after eating a loaf of poppy seed bread and a poppy seed bagel over a three-day period. The test picked up the presence of morphine in her system, enough to have got her fired, if it hadn’t have been a controlled experiment. You’ve been warned.

Aside from bread, according to this year’s Global Drugs Survey,  magic mushrooms are the safest recreational drug of choice. Of the 12,000 who fessed up to ingesting the psilocybin hallucinogenic ‘rooms in 2016, only 0.2% needed emergency medical treatment, a rate five times lower than those who had taken Colombian marching powder or LSD. The bigger risk, it would seem, is eating the wrong sort of fungi.

Mushrooms on poppy seeded toast for lunch, I think!

A Measure Of Things – Part Four


Measuring smells

What is mildly astonishing about smells is that in the vernacular there is no obvious means of measuring and comparing them. After all, we are surrounded by smells, some pleasant and appealing like the scent of a flower or a perfume whilst others are grossly offensive like body odour and farts. On encountering a pungent odour we register against some scale deep in our subconscious but I was hard pressed, before digging into the subject, to name a scale which gave some comparatives with which we can judge and contrast what has just hit our nostrils.

A Danish environmental scientist, P.O.Fanger, has done some work on the subject. In 1988 he came up with a unit of measure, the olf. One olf is the odour given off by a standard person, defined as someone in a sedentary occupation who takes 0.7 baths a day and has a skin surface of 1.8 square metres. I’m not sure I have considered the size of my skin surface or, indeed, anyone else’s but as I’m above the average size, vertically if not in profile, I suspect I’m slightly above that. As an Englishman I don’t bathe but have a daily shower so my cleanliness is a bit above Fanger’s standard so I’m in a bit of quandary as to whether I emit one standard olf or not. A heavy smoker, though, emits 25 olfs and an athlete, presumably after their exertions, a whopping 30 olfs.

Fanger wasn’t finished there. He came up with a decipol which he used to measure perceived air quality. A decipol is the perceived air quality in a space where there is one olf ventilated by 10 litres of unpolluted air a second. I’m not sure this is any more useful than the olf but I might just go around from time to time muttering, “just feel the decipols in this place”.

I’m not a great fan of talk shows on the radio but there are some hosts who go beyond the usual platitudinous fare and are able to riff on even the most mundane subject in an amusing and occasionally instructive way. Danny Baker is always worth a listen, I find, and one of his equivalents over the pond is Adam Corolla and his sidekick, Dr Drew, who hosted a show called Lovelines. He developed a scale called Hobo Power which ran from 0 to 100 and a standard feature on the show consisted of callers ringing in with the latest shocker of an olfactory experience and they would determine where it fitted on the scale.

A scale of sorts soon emerged. Zero meant that it didn’t whiff at all whereas the top score of 100, which has never been awarded, would result in immediate asphyxiation. A robust fart rated 13 whereas a 30 would induce someone who caught a whiff to vomit. Corolla described a smell meriting a 50 on the scale as akin to a cat that has been fed on nothing but blue cheese for a week defecating on a white-hot hibachi, a Japanese fire box.

For those who like a more scientific approach to the measurement of smells, two enterprising students from Cornell University, Robert Clain and Miguel Salas, developed a fart detector using a sensitive hydrogen sulphide monitor, a thermometer and a microphone with accompanying software. The machine would rate stench, temperature and sound – apparently, the warmer the fart, the wider it spreads – and a voice would rate it using a scale running from zero to nine. A nifty feature was that if the fart ranked a nine, a fan would switch itself on and dissipate the smell. The drawback was that unless you recruited a professional flatulist, testing was a bit haphazard which is probably why it never developed beyond a good idea.

Pumpkin Update (8)

It’s a while since I reported on my pumpkin seeds. Well, beware the false prophets of the seed packet is all I can say. “Plant in pots and within 5 to 7 days, seeds will germinate,” the packet said. After a week, what did I have? Nada. After a couple of weeks or so, a couple deigned to pop their head above the surface and are now flourishing. A third made an appearance, some five weeks after sowing.

Perhaps they are victims of climate change. After all, they are Snowman pumpkins.

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Seventy


John Fitch (1743 – 1798)

Lady luck plays a large part in someone’s success. If you are cursed with bad luck, then it is even harder to reap the rewards that your invention merits. A case in point is the story of the American, John Fitch, the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame.

Born in Connecticut, Fitch was a bit of a jack-of-all-trades in his youth, turning his hand to farm work, clock making, silversmithing, cartography and fighting in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. After his discharge, he explored the Ohio River valley and was captured by a group of Native Americans who turned him over to the Brits. Eventually he was released but perhaps it was this experience that caused him to ponder whether there was a method of propelling river craft more quickly than simply muscle power.

Fitch’s idea was to deploy the new-fangled steam powered engines that were beginning to make their mark in Britain. They would enable boats to move up and down rivers independently of concerns such as tides and weather. Unfortunately for Fitch, the consequence of independence was that the Brits refused to share their new technology with their erstwhile colonists and so he had to start from scratch, deploying the services of a clockmaker, Henry Voight, to build an engine. By this time he had persuaded various state legislatures to grant him a 14 year monopoly for steamboat traffic on their inland waterways, a concession that enabled him to raise investment from prominent Pennsylvanian businessmen.

The first public trial of Fitch’s steamboat, called appropriately Perseverance, took place on the Delaware river on August 22nd 1787 in front of assembled dignitaries. Although successful and drawing fulsome praise, no additional funding was forthcoming. Undaunted, Fitch and Voight built a more substantial vessel, sixty feet long with a steam engine which powered a number of oars positioned in the stern which paddled rather like a duck. During the summer of 1790 Fitch carried up to 30 passengers a time on journeys between Philadelphia and Burlington, travelling in total over 1,500 miles at speeds averaging 6 miles per hour but getting up to a racy 8 miles per hour at times. As importantly, Fitch claimed they could travel upwards of 500 miles without any mechanical mishap.

Although Fitch was awarded a patent on August 26th 1791 for his steamboat, after a ferocious battle with James Rumsey who had also invented a steam-powered vessel, it did not grant him a monopoly, just protecting his design. This caused many of Fitch’s investors to jump ship and our hero was left high and dry. Desperate for funding, he went to France but arrived at the height of the Reign of Terror when the monied classes had more pressing concerns on their collars. A fund-raising trip to Blighty drew a blank and so Fitch returned to the States.

Misfortune continued to dog him. He moved to Kentucky where he had bought some land in the 1780s, hoping to sell some to finance the building of a steamboat to ply the Ohio or Mississippi rivers, only to find them occupied by settlers, necessitating a protracted legal battle to evict them. He continued working on steam engine concepts and what was found in his attic was described as “the prototype of a land-operating steam engine” meant to operate on tracks. His train preceded that of Richard Trevithick’s, built in 1802 and recognised as the daddy of the steam locomotive.

Alas, Fitch fell into depression, drank heavily and committed suicide in 1798, allowing Robert Fulton with better financial backing to steam in and make his dream of steam-powered boats a reality.

John, for pioneering the steam-powered boat and train but failing to get the credit, you are a worthy inductee.


If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link

Motivated By Curiosity And A Desire For The Truth – Part Twenty Nine


The vomit-drinking doctor, Stubbins Ffirth (1784 – 1820)

One of the problems of having an enquiring mind and natural curiosity is that at times you have to temper it. The risk is that your passion becomes all-consuming and it takes you down routes that most sane people would not contemplate. The advance of science and human knowledge requires researchers with undaunted courage and perseverance. But some can take it too far as the curious tale of an American doctor, Stubbins Ffirth, shows.

Yellow fever was a major problem in the United States in the late 18th century – an outbreak in Philadelphia in 1793 had killed several thousand people – and understanding the disease and, more importantly, finding a cure for it was the number one priority. The popular theory around at the time was that the disease was spread by what was known at the time as miasma or bad air. Ffirth was having none of it. The bee in his bonnet – or perhaps it should be mosquito as the cause of yellow fever was eventually attributed to the pesky insect in 1900 – was to prove his theory that the fever was not contagious and he went to extraordinary lengths to demonstrate the veracity of his thesis.

As with most scientists, the starting point was to experiment on animals. Ffirth’s first experiment involved some black vomit collected from some poor yellow fever patients, some bread and a small dog. The latter was confined to a room and fed bread soaked in the vomit. Alas for the scientist but, perhaps fortunately for the dog, it took a shine to the unusual repast and after three days became so fond of it that it would eat the vomit without the accompanying bread. Abandoning that experiment, Ffirth injected vomit into the jugular veins of assorted dogs and cats. The results were inconclusive – one dog died within ten minutes while others remained perfectly healthy.

Undaunted, Ffirth decided that the only thing for it was to dispense with the lower orders of the animal kingdom and experiment on Homo sapiens – and who better than himself? He wrote of his first experiment, “On October 4th 1802 I made an incision in my left arm, midway between the elbow and wrist, so as to draw a few drops of blood. Into the incision I introduced some fresh black vomit…a slight degree of inflammation ensued, which entirely subsided in three days, and the wound healed up very readily”. He injected the vomit of yellow fever patients into various parts of his body with no real effect.

Thinking he was really on to something he devised even more extreme experiments, including frying three ounces of vomit in a pan and inhaling the steam and sitting in a small, enclosed closet inhaling six ounces of steaming vomit. Still no real effect. So the next stage in the experiments was to “take half an ounce of the black vomit immediately after it was ejected from a patient and diluting it with an ounce and a half of water, swallowed it”. The concoction tasted slightly acidic but it neither caused nausea or pain. Undaunted, he pressed on drinking several doses of vomit, often undiluted. But still there was no effect.

The lengths that Ffirth had gone to convinced him that his thesis was correct. His inability to contract the disease even after ingesting copious amounts of body fluids from fever patients was proof enough. He published his findings in A Treatise on Malignant Fever; with an attempt to prove its non-contagious non-malignant Nature in 1804. But he was wrong. It was also subsequently demonstrated that the vomit and other bodily fluids he ingested were from victims who had passed their contagious state. Who’d have thought that? Instead of being a medical, great Ffirth had to make do with being known as the vomit-drinking doctor.

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Sixty Nine


Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville (1817 – 1879)

It is always fascinating to hear yourself as others hear you. Often it is quite a shock – do I really sound like that? – but the usual way in which we hear our voice as it really is is by recording it on a tape recorder or a dictaphone and then playing it back. Of course, someone must have had the brain wave to capture the human voice and this is where the latest inductee of our illustrious Hall of Fame, Leon Scott, to abbreviate the mouthful that is his name, comes in.

Scott was born and lived in Paris and was a printer by trade. Perhaps unsurprisingly,, he took some interest in the documents, journals and books that he was printing. A particular speciality of his printing business was works of scientific interest and he was able to keep abreast with the latest developments. Having seen the development of rudimentary cameras which were able to capture images of the human form, he began to wonder whether a device could be built to record the human voice. Scott saw a particularly useful application in the ability to record a conversation verbatim, what we would now call stenography and by 1849 had published a number of papers on the subject.

Proof-reading a physics textbook around 1853 he came across a series of drawings of the human auditory system and he wondered whether that could be recreated mechanically. His design replaced the tympanum with an elastic membrane in the shape of a horn and the ossicle with a series of levers which would move a stylus back and forth across a glass or paper surface blackened by smoke from an oil lamp. The object of the exercise was to capture the sound of the human voice in a way that could be deciphered rather than played back.


Calling his device a phonautograph, Scott sent a version of its design to the French Academy on 25th March 1857 and received a French patent for his troubles. But there is one thing coming up with an idea and another making some money out of it, the significant drawback to his design being that whilst it reproduced sound as a series of squiggles it did not allow the recordist to play it back. So what sales Scott made were limited to the scientific community, principally to allow them to investigate the qualities and properties of sound. Laudable, for sure, but sales were insufficient to make a difference to his lifestyle and Scott saw out his days a librarian and bookseller.

And there it may have rested. But in 2008 a group of scientists the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory got hold of one of Scott’s phonoautographs and succeeded in converting the series of squiggles made on 9th April 1860 into a digital audio file. On playing it they heard a 20 second snatch of Scott singing, very slowly, part of Au clair de la lune, an audio recording pre-dating Thomas Edison’s recording of Handel’s oratorio, Israel in Egypt, by some 28 years.

Edison received a patent for his phonogram in 1877 and Scott went to his grave convinced that the American had wrested some of the glory that was rightfully his. For laying the foundations for recording the human voice, Leon, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.


If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link