Archives for the month of: September, 2012


Every day I walk past Lord Kelvin’s statue.  I did this for years in Glasgow, where his statue sits in Kelvingrove Park and now I do it in Belfast, where his statue stands in the city’s Botanic Gardens.   Both cities claim him as their own – he was born in one and achieved greatness in the other. In Belfast he stands; in Glasgow he is allowed to sit.  But, in both cities his head is bowed as he looks down at the work before him.

Kelvin was born William Thomson in Belfast in 1824 and moved with his family to Glasgow as a child.  He had been home-schooled, but continued his education more formally in Glasgow and then Cambridge.  He was a Physicist, or rather a Natural Philosopher, who claimed that “Mathematics is the only true metaphysics”.  He worked on thermodynamics as well as being instrumental in the laying of the transatlantic telegraph cable.   Theoretical and practical in equal measure, he was first knighted by Queen Victoria and then ennobled.   At the end he was buried in Westminster Abbey close to the grave of Sir Isaac Newton.  And, if that was not enough to secure his celebrity status in the physics hall of fame, his greatest honour was still to come.  In recognition of his work on temperature and his realisation that there was a lower and absolute limit to temperature,  the base SI unit of temperature was named the kelvin, some fifty years after his death. There are seven base units in the SI system and all others are derived from these.  The newton, the hertz, the pascal and the many other units named after the greatest scientists of the day are derived units.  Kelvin shares his base unit honour with only one other scientist, André-Marie Ampère, who gave his name to the SI base unit of electrical current.

Kelvin would have enjoyed being associated with a unit of measurement, for measurement was his life.  Kelvin was a scientist driven by numbers.  He saw the world in quantitative terms and his mathematics as a way of describing and explaining it.  “Do not imagine that mathematics is harsh and crabbed, and repulsive to common sense.” he said, “It is merely the etherealisation of common sense.” (1)

He saw the power of quantity over quality, reckoning that true science was built on measurement.

“In physical science a first essential step in the direction of learning any subject is to find principles of numerical reckoning and practicable methods for measuring some quality connected with it. I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely in your thoughts advanced to the stage of science, whatever the matter may be.” (2)

To express what we know in numbers is the goal of many.  According to Kelvin it was the only route to scientific knowledge.

“Accurate and minute measurement seems, to the non-scientific imagination, a less lofty and dignified work than looking for something new. But nearly all the grandest discoveries of science have been but the rewards of accurate measurement and patient long-continued labour in the minute sifting of numerical results.” (3)

In other words: hard graft.  Going through the numbers is indeed what much of science in my experience has been about.  Kelvin saw the importance of this and did not shy away from saying so.  The glamour of discovery is often how science is portrayed, but the reality is one of grind.  Meticulous collections of data, carefully arrayed and analysed are what Kelvin saw as the basis of discovery.  However, the world he worked in was a very different one compared with today.  His collections of data were, by modern standards, manageable affairs.  He had no computers to help him. He had pen and paper, a slide rule and a mathematical mind.  With these he created the first experimental physics laboratory at a British University, and changed the way we think.

Modern data collections, especially in the fields of imaging and modern “omics” present us with challenges of analysis greater than Kelvin might have imagined.  The mega, giga, even terabytes of data that are derived from these experiments are all but inaccessible without complex mathematical strategies.  We have certainly measured and quantified, but whether we actually know anything, in the way Kelvin hoped, is in some cases debatable.  Perhaps, the potential of measurement overload merely provides us with a different form of knowledge of an equally “meagre and unsatisfactory kind”.

When he was made a peer, William Thomson took the title, Baron Kelvin of Largs.  He chose the name of the river that runs by the University in Glasgow as his noble identity.  The River Kelvin also gives its name to Kelvingrove, Glasgow’s finest museum and art gallery and the park in which it sits, to Kelvin Way, a tree lined way through the park that joins the University to the museum and to Kelvinside, the up-market area around the University where the inhabitants are famed for speaking with a stilted form of Glaswegian accent.  But, Lord Kelvin only seems to have borrowed the name of the river, perhaps to measure it carefully, before giving it back to Glasgow.  His Department of Natural Philosophy, more recently renamed the Department of Physics and Astronomy, is now housed, of course,  in the Kelvin Building.

1.        The Six Gateways of Knowledge’, Presidential Address to the Birmingham and Midland Institute,   Birmingham (3 Oct 1883). In Popular Lectures and Addresses (1891), Vol. 1, 280.

2.        From lecture to the Institution of Civil Engineers, London (3 May 1883), ‘Electrical Units of Measurement’, Popular Lectures and Addresses (1889), Vol. 1, 80.

3.        Presidential inaugural address, to the General Meeting of the British Association, Edinburgh (2 Aug 1871). In Report of the Forty-First Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1872).

© Allan Gaw 2012

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Maurice H. Pappworth (1910-1994)

A love of history takes you to exciting places. I have been fascinated for some years by the work of a pioneering medical ethicist and educator, Maurice Pappworth.  Dr Pappworth died in 1994 and I regret to say I never knew him, but after his death his eldest daughter, Joanna, deposited his papers in the Wellcome Library in London.  And, it was there that at last I first really met him.

His papers, along with those of many others, may be viewed by appointment in the Rare Materials Viewing Room in the Library.  You need to join the Wellcome Library; there is some form filling and photography for your reader’s card, but it is free and the wonder of the place is more than compensation for the time spent.  The papers themselves are catalogued and held in secure storage, in vaults beneath Euston Road, I like to think.  They come in Manila cardboard file boxes, each carefully numbered.  These are handed to you by expert staff after you sign and basically agree that you will be ‘good’ while in their Library and while handling the papers.

On my first visit to the Library I did not know what to expect. The Rare Materials Viewing Room sounds as if it should be dusty and Egyptian, with scrolls and naked torches lighting bare stone walls.  In fact, the room is bright and modern, with plenty of desk space and friendly, knowledgeable and, on occasion, even rather witty staff.  Foam cushions are available on the tables to support fragile books and there are plenty of power sockets for the inevitable laptops and iPads.  There are no pens – ink being the deadly enemy of the archive – but you are allowed pencils, which they even provide.  There is also silence broken only by small gasps of wonder as readers open their boxes of treasure.

Inside Pappworth’s boxes were slim folders tied with calico tapes.  I took one, untied it and suddenly I was not studying history anymore, I was in it.  The Rare Materials Viewing Room is quite simply a place of time travel.

I had been particularly interested in Pappworth’s interactions with some of the other 20th century players in research ethics, and having searched the catalogue believed I had identified some letters that had not previously been written about.   I turned a leaf and found myself holding a letter written in the 1960s by Henry Knowles Beecher.  Beecher was the first professor of anaesthesiology at Harvard University who later in his career had written one of the single most important papers in research ethics.  I had read his papers (indeed I knew some of his phrases off by heart), I had taught students about his work and now I was holding a letter he had signed.  The artefacts of history bring it alive and none more so than the papers that were handled and written by those with whom we are trying to connect.  Papers fingerprinted by the past still bearing the scent of their authors. But, the best was yet to come.

Somewhat unexpectedly, I turned over another page in the same folder and found myself holding the correspondence of Andrew C. Ivy.  Ivy was very well known to me, as he would be to anyone interested in medical ethics, for he was the American Medical Association’s representative at the Nuremberg Doctors’ Trial in 1946-47.   His first letter to Pappworth began: “I was considering the subject of your letter when I testified at Nuremberg.”  I sat holding the letter, my fingers where his had been, and re-read the words that had been typed by his secretary,  corrected by the man himself and then signed with his small signature.  I was no longer reading a book or a paper about that seminal moment in the development of medical ethics; I was instead sharing in the conversation of those that were there.

The fruits of that day in the Wellcome Library (along, I must admit, with many others) was a paper on the Pappworth/Beecher correspondence, which was published earlier this year in the Annals of Internal Medicine and which tracks the development of each man’s publications in the ethics of medical research.   I am currently working of a related paper on the Ivy/Pappworth correspondence, which tells an even greater story shedding new light on the question of who actually wrote the Nuremberg Code.

That I was able to marvel at these papers, and for a day be part of them, made me ponder on the state of such research in the future.  In the 1950s and 60s, when most of the letters and papers I had been reading were written, communication was, for the most part, on paper.  Nowadays, those conversations would be telephonic or electronic.  The exchanges I was able to share in, 50 years after they had taken place, would today have been a phone call or an e-mail thread.  Where are the records of our phone calls and how many of us keep emails? Yes, we keep some, in a couple of folders marked “important”, but for 50 years? What will be left of our archives should some would-be historian wish to reconstruct our actions and rebuild our motives after we are gone?  The demise of the letter must surely be a mortal blow to the historian of the future.   There will be our journal articles and our books, for they should survive in some repository, but what of the backstory? The intrigue behind the scenes that reveals so much more than the published, and polished, final drafts.  Where will that historian find the people when our lives are lived on computers?

All those faxes on thermal paper have long since faded back to blank.  Videos and floppy disks are unreadable.  And, twitter, Facebook and even e-mails are ethereal and for the most part transient.  Even if they are archived, as the US Library Congress has been doing with twitter since its inception in March 2006, think of the sheer tonnage of dross the historian would have to sift through to find even the smallest morsel of useable information.  Currently, there are around 350 million tweets per day.  Preserving a digital archive is a monumental task and it is hard to imagine that the effort put into it will be matched by any parallel level of reward.  However, that’s probably what they said about places like the Wellcome Library.

Whatever the outcome, our personal archives are surely a thing of the past.  Even our diaries are mainly electronic and our blogs, even this one, are likely to have the permanence of that thermal fax paper.  Perhaps, for the sake of posterity you understand, I should get out the paper and pen and start building my own archive now.  Perhaps you should too.  You never know.

© Allan Gaw 2012

Allan Gaw is the author of: “Exposing unethical human research: the transatlantic correspondence of Beecher and Pappworth.”  Ann Intern Med. 2012 Jan 17;156(2):150-5. PMID: 22250147

My books available on kindle:

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