Essays
Science & Medicine

Pods, Pots, and Potions: Putting Cacao to Paper in Early Modern Europe

Pods, Pots, and Potions: Putting Cacao to Paper in Early Modern Europe

Christine Jones explores the different ways the cacao tree has been depicted through history — from 16th-century codices to 18th-century botanicals — and what this changing iconography reveals about cacao's journey into European culture. more

Master of Disaster, Ignatius Donnelly

Master of Disaster, Ignatius Donnelly

The destruction of Atlantis, cataclysmic comets, and a Manhattan tower made entirely from concrete and corpse — Carl Abbott on the life and work of a Minnesotan writer, and failed politician, with a mind primed for catastrophe. more

Human Forms in Nature: Ernst Haeckel’s Trip to South Asia and Its Aftermath

Human Forms in Nature: Ernst Haeckel’s Trip to South Asia and Its Aftermath

An early promoter and populariser of Darwin's evolutionary theory, the German biologist and artist Ernst Haeckel was a hugely influential figure of the late 19th century. Bernd Brunner looks at how a trip to Sri Lanka sowed the seeds for not only Haeckel's majestic illustrations from his Art Forms in Nature, for which he is perhaps best known today, but also his disturbing ideas on race and eugenics. more

W. B. O’Shaughnessy and the Introduction of Cannabis to Modern Western Medicine

W. B. O’Shaughnessy and the Introduction of Cannabis to Modern Western Medicine

Cataleptic trances, enormous appetites, and giggling fits aside, W. B. O'Shaughnessy's investigations at a Calcutta hospital into the potential of medical marijuana — the first such trials in modern medicine — were largely positive. Sujaan Mukherjee explores the intricacies of this pioneering research and what it can tell us more generally about the production of knowledge in colonial science. more

Lofty Only in Sound: Crossed Wires and Community in 19th-Century Dreams

Lofty Only in Sound: Crossed Wires and Community in 19th-Century Dreams

Alicia Puglionesi explores a curious case of supposed dream telepathy at the end of the US Civil War, in which old ideas about the prophetic nature of dreaming collided with loss, longing, and new possibilities of communication at a distance. more

The Many Lives of the Medieval Wound Man

The Many Lives of the Medieval Wound Man

Sliced, stabbed, punctured, bleeding, harassed on all sides by various weaponry, the curious image of Wound Man is a rare yet intriguing presence in the world of medieval and early modern medical manuscripts. Jack Hartnell explores this enigmatic figure's journey through the centuries. more

“Let us Calculate!”: Leibniz, Llull, and the Computational Imagination

“Let us Calculate!”: Leibniz, Llull, and the Computational Imagination

Three hundred years after the death of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and seven hundred years after the death of Ramon Llull, Jonathan Gray looks at how their early visions of computation and the “combinatorial art” speak to our own age of data, algorithms, and artificial intelligence. more

Visions of Algae in Eighteenth-Century Botany

Visions of Algae in Eighteenth-Century Botany

Although not normally considered the most glamorous of Mother Nature's offerings, algae has found itself at the heart of many a key moment in the last few hundred years of botanical science. Ryan Feigenbaum traces the surprising history of one particular species — Conferva fontinalis — from the vials of Joseph Priestley's laboratory to its possible role as inspiration for Shelley's Frankenstein. more

Copying Pictures, Evidencing Evolution

Copying Pictures, Evidencing Evolution

Copying — unoriginal, dull, and derivative by definition — can be creative, contested, and consequential in its effects. Nick Hopwood tracks Haeckel’s embryos, some of the most controversial pictures in the history of science, and explores how copying put them among the most widely seen. more

Frolicsome Engines: The Long Prehistory of Artificial Intelligence

Frolicsome Engines: The Long Prehistory of Artificial Intelligence

Defecating ducks, talking busts, and mechanised Christs — Jessica Riskin on the wonderful history of automata, machines built to mimic the processes of intelligent life. more

The Anthropometric Detective and His Racial Clues

The Anthropometric Detective and His Racial Clues

Ava Kofman explores how the spectre of race, in particular Francis Galton's disturbing theory of eugenics, haunts the early history of fingerprint technology. more

Worlds Without End

Worlds Without End

At the end of the 19th century, inspired by radical advances in technology, physicists asserted the reality of invisible worlds — an idea through which they sought to address not only psychic phenomena such as telepathy, but also spiritual questions around the soul and immortality. Philip Ball explores this fascinating history, and how in this turn to the unseen in the face of mystery there exists a parallel to quantum physics today. more

The Science of Life and Death in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

The Science of Life and Death in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Professor Sharon Ruston surveys the scientific background to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, considering contemporary investigations into resuscitation, galvanism, and the possibility of states between life and death. more

Notes on the Fourth Dimension

Notes on the Fourth Dimension

Hyperspace, ghosts, and colourful cubes — Jon Crabb on the work of Charles Howard Hinton and the cultural history of higher dimensions. more

Richard Spruce and the Trials of Victorian Bryology

Richard Spruce and the Trials of Victorian Bryology

Obsessed with the smallest and seemingly least exciting of plants — mosses and liverworts — the 19th-century botanist Richard Spruce never achieved the fame of his more popularist contemporaries. Elaine Ayers explores the work of this unsung hero of Victorian plant science and how his complexities echoed the very subject of his study. more

Bad Air: Pollution, Sin, and Science Fiction in William Delisle Hay’s The Doom of the Great City (1880)

Bad Air: Pollution, Sin, and Science Fiction in William Delisle Hay’s The Doom of the Great City (1880)

Deadly fogs, moralistic diatribes, debunked medical theory — Brett Beasley explores a piece of Victorian science fiction considered to be the first modern tale of urban apocalypse. more

Dr Mitchill and the Mathematical Tetrodon

Dr Mitchill and the Mathematical Tetrodon

One of the early Republic's great polymaths, New Yorker Samuel L. Mitchill was a man with a finger in many a pie, including medicine, science, natural history, and politics. Dr Kevin Dann argues that Mitchill's peculiar brand of curiosity can best be seen in his study of fish and the attention he gives one seemingly unassuming specimen. more

When the Birds and the Bees Were Not Enough: Aristotle’s Masterpiece

When the Birds and the Bees Were Not Enough: Aristotle’s Masterpiece

Mary Fissell on how a wildly popular sex manual — first published in 17th-century London and reprinted in hundreds of subsequent editions — both taught and titillated through the early modern period and beyond. more

Cat Pianos, Sound-Houses, and Other Imaginary Musical Instruments

Cat Pianos, Sound-Houses, and Other Imaginary Musical Instruments

Deirdre Loughridge and Thomas Patteson, curators of the Museum of Imaginary Musical Instruments, explore the wonderful history of made-up musical contraptions, including a piano comprised of yelping cats and Francis Bacon's 17th-century vision of experimental sound manipulation. more

Scurvy and the Terra Incognita

Scurvy and the Terra Incognita

One remarkable symptom of scurvy, that constant bane of the Age of Discovery, was the acute and morbid heightening of the senses. Jonathan Lamb explores how this unusual effect of sailing into uncharted territory echoed a different kind of voyage, one undertaken by the Empiricists through their experiments in enhancing the senses artificially. more

Black on Black

Black on Black

Should we consider black a colour, the absence of colour, or a suspension of vision produced by a deprivation of light? Beginning with Robert Fludd's attempt to picture nothingness, Eugene Thacker reflects* on some of the ways in which blackness has been used and thought about through the history of art and philosophical thought. more

Sex and Science in Robert Thornton’s Temple of Flora

Sex and Science in Robert Thornton’s Temple of Flora

Bridal beds, blushing captives, and swollen trunks - Carl Linnaeus' taxonomy of plants heralded a whole new era in 18th-century Europe of plants being spoken of in sexualised terms. Martin Kemp explores* how this association between the floral and erotic reached its visual zenith in Robert Thornton's exquisitely illustrated Temple of Flora. more

Neanderthals in 3D: L’Homme de La Chapelle

Neanderthals in 3D: L’Homme de La Chapelle

More than just a favourite of Victorian home entertainment, the stereoscope and the 3D images it created were also used in the field of science. Lydia Pyne explores how the French palaeontologist Marcellin Boule utilised the device in his groundbreaking monograph analysing one of the early-20th-century's most significant archaeological discoveries - the Neanderthal skeleton of La Chapelle. more

When Chocolate was Medicine: Colmenero, Wadsworth, and Dufour

When Chocolate was Medicine: Colmenero, Wadsworth, and Dufour

Chocolate has not always been the common confectionary we experience today. When it first arrived from the Americas into Europe in the 17th century it was a rare and mysterious substance, thought more of as a drug than as a food. Christine Jones traces the history and literature of its reception. more