Category Archives: History of Science

Explosives, Fertilisers, Chemical Weapons and the Unintended Consequences of Discovery: The Tragedy of Fritz Haber

What’s a tragedy? Hamlet is a tragedy, not just because our hero ends up dead, taking half a dozen people with him, but because his own reflective intelligence is instrumental in his fate. By this strict definition, the story of Fritz Haber, indicted war criminal, Nobel laureate, patriot and miserable exile, is indeed a tragedy.  He sought to serve this country, and helped destroy it. The moral dilemmas of Haber’s career will not go away, and the ironies of unintended consequences are timeless. [Notes on talk to Callander and W Perthshire U3A, 22 March 2023]


  • Einstein’s German world, Fritz Stern
  • Fritz Haber – Chemist, Laureate, German, Jew, Dietrich Stoltzenberg
  • (See also Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Karl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production, Vaclav Smil)
Fritz Haber with benchtop ammonia synthesis apparatus (note duelling scar)
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Damage limitation at Imperial

The Royal College of Science building, now home to part of Imperial’s Chemistry Department

Disaster has been averted at Imperial. But much damage has been done, the group appointed to implement the decisions taken faces an impossible task, and the process has aggravated the very problem that it was meant to address.

For months, as I described elsewhere earlier,  Imperial College has been contemplating the possibility of dis-honouring T. H.  Huxley, one of its founders, on the basis of early remarks that we would now condemn as racist, but did no more than express the general assumptions of his time and place.  This despite the fact that Huxley was a lifelong opponent of all forms of discrimination, a fierce opponent of slavery at a time when many cultivated Englishmen were sympathetic to the Confederate cause, and clearly changed his views about race over time.

The President and the Provost have both been urging a whitewashing (if I can use this term) of the College’s history by such measures as removing Huxley’s name and bust from one of Imperial’s most prominent buildings.  As I explained earlier, they attempted to accomplish this using a deeply flawed process.  A History Group lacking in any higher level expertise in Huxley’s own areas of biology and palaeontology was set up, with the College archivist restricted to a consultative role, as was the Imperial faculty member best qualified to comment on historical matters. Two outside historians were consulted, but their areas of expertise did not really include Huxley.1 Adrian Desmond, Huxley’s biographer, was consulted but as I documented in my earlier article, his unambiguous vindication of Huxley was completely ignored. In October (revised version November), the History Group’s report recommended that Huxley’s name be removed from the Huxley Building, and his bust on display there relegated to a museum.

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TH Huxley’s legacy, a campus college renaming controversy, and appeal for signatures

Western Washington University, a well-respected publicly funded university in Bellingham, WA, is conducting a review of the naming of its buildings, in the course of which demands were expressed for the renaming of the [TH] Huxley College of the Environment, and as a result the University’s Legacy Review Task Force has invited comment. Background information including links to solicited academic comment is available at

My own initial reaction was outrage, but closer examination convinced me that serious engagement is a more appropriate response, given aspects of Huxley’s legacy of which I was not aware. There is no doubt, however, that the movement to rename is seriously misguided, and can be traced back to the long-standing creationist tradition of pretending that evolution science is responsible for racism. The attack on Huxley, as spelt out in a submission by one member of the Task Force (Why is TH Huxley Problematic?) has therefore evoked a detailed rebuttal by Glenn Branch of the [US] National Center for Science Education.

With the encouragement of a WWU faculty member, I have drafted the following letter, for which I invite signatures. If you wish to add your name, and especially if you have some academic, educational, or related standing, and please let me know, either by comment here or by email to me at psbratermanATyahooDOTcom, giving me your name, and position(s) held. I will then include you among the signatories when I forward the letter to Paul Dunn – President’s Chief of Staff and Chair of the Task Force, with copy to Sabah Randhawa – President of the University. Alternatively, you may wish to write to them directly as an individual.

We welcome the opportunity to comment on the proposed renaming of Huxley College of the Environment.

We are used to making allowances for people of the past, on the grounds that their behavior was conditioned by their time and place. For example, your own University, and the State that it serves, are named after a slave-owner. But Huxley, his detractors may be surprised to hear, requires no such forgiveness. Like most Englishmen, and most scientists, of his time, he believed in the racial superiority of Europeans, and this misguided perspective affected his anthropological studies. It did not, however, affect his progressive social outlook, and as the evidence submitted to the Task Force shows, he was deeply opposed to slavery and to all forms of unequal treatment and discrimination, argued in favor of equal treatment for women and against Spenserian  “Social Darwinism”, and campaigned vigorously on behalf of Abolition during the American Civil War. 

The attack on Huxley has deep roots, and is part of a wider creationist strategy to discredit evolution science. For this reason, the case has attracted attention from as far away as Scotland and New Zealand. The creationist connection accounts for the presence, among critics of Huxley cited in support of renaming, of the creationist Discovery Institute, and of Jerry Bergman, associated with Creation Ministries International, among other suspect sources. Ironically in this context, Bergman once wrote for support to the National Association for the Advancement of White People.

However, despite these tainted connections, current discussion of renaming at Western Washington is part of a praiseworthy worldwide process of re-evaluation, and student involvement in this is to be commended. It may therefore be helpful to display prominently in the Huxley Building a brief summary of his achievements, including his campaigning against slavery, and on behalf of equal treatment for women, in which he was far ahead of his time.


File:Western Washington University Looking North.jpg
Western Washington University looking north over Bellingham; Nick Kelly / Faithlife Corporation via Wikipedia

Creationism, Noah’s Flood, and Race

20th-Century creationism and racism

Henry M. Morris photo.jpg

Henry Morris, CRI publicity photo

(re-post from 3 Quarks Daily): Henry Morris, founding father of modern Young Earth creationism, wrote in 1977 that the Hamitic races (including red, yellow, and black) were destined by their nature to be servants to the descendants of Shem and Japheth. Noah was inspired when he prophesied this (Genesis 9:25-27) [1]. The descendants of Shem are characterised by an inherited religious zeal, those of Japheth by mental acumen, while those of Ham are limited by the “peculiarly concrete and materialistic thought-structure inherent in Hamitic peoples,” which even affects their language structures. These innate differences explain the success of the European and Middle Eastern empires, as well as African servitude.

All this is spelt out in Morris’s 1977 book, The Beginning of the World, most recently reprinted in 2005 (in Morris’s lifetime, and presumably with his approval), and available from Amazon as a paperback or on Kindle.

Morris is no fringe figure. On the contrary, he, more than any other individual, was responsible for the 20th-century invention of Young Earth “creation science”. He was co-author of The Genesis Flood, which regards Noah’s flood as responsible for sediments worldwide, and founded the Institute of Creation Research (of which Answers in Genesis is a later offshoot) in 1972, serving as its President, and then President Emeritus, until his death in 2006. Read the rest of this entry

The Scopes “Monkey trial”, Part 2: Evidence, Confrontation, Resolution, Consequences

This weekend sees the 93rd anniversary of the Scopes Trial, and I am reposting this and its companion piece to celebrate.

I would point out two things. One is that the actual William Jennings Bryan was nothing like the ogre of Inherit the Wind, which was an allegory of McCarthyism. The other is how remarkably well the scientific evidence has stood up to almost a century of examination. There is even a mention, based on serological evidence, of how closely related whales are to hoofed land animals.

Primate's Progress

Darrow: Did you ever discover where Cain got his wife?

Bryan: No, sir; I leave the agnostics to hunt for her.

Both sides, I will argue, were long-term loses in this exchange. But why were such matters being discussed in Tennessee court of law in the first place?

Part 1: the story so far: An extraordinary case indeed, where a school teacher, with the encouragement of his own superintendent, volunteers to go on trial in the State court for the crime of teaching from the State’s approved textbook, and where that same superintendent will be the first witness called against him. And where a mere misdemeanour case, with a maximum penalty of $500, could attract the participation of William Jennings Bryan, former US Secretary of State, and Clarence Darrow, America’s most famous trial lawyer and an agnostic.

BillySundayPreaching Billy Sunday preaching

In the run-up to the case, we even have the…

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Why historical science is the best kind of science

This is for a planned wide-audience writing project on evolution, in which I pre-empt (rather than respond to) creationists’ counter-arguments, such as their downplaying of historical science. I would greatly value comments on this approach.

There are sciences, such as physics and chemistry, where we can perform experiments. There are other sciences, such as the science of planetary motion (and astronomy in general) where we cannot do this, but we can still carry out repeated observations in well-controlled circumstances, and devise theories with whose help we can make definite predictions. All of these are what I will call rule-seeking sciences. At the other extreme, we have sciences such as palaeontology and much of geology, which one might call historical sciences.1 With these, the aim is not so much to establish general rules, as to unravel and explain the specifics of what happened in the past. It is usual to regard the rule-seeking sciences as the most rigorous, to which the others should defer. This shows a deep misunderstanding of how science works, and, time and time again, when historical and rule-seeking sciences have come into conflict, it is historical science that has triumphed.

Rocks exposed at Grand Canyon, from Proterozoic to Permian. Click to enlarge

A few examples. The rocks clearly show (for detailed arguments, see e.g. here) that the Earth, and by implication the Sun, Read the rest of this entry

What the Bishop said to the Biologist; a Victorian scandal revisited

Yes, Bishop Wilberforce really did ask TH Huxley, “Darwin’s bulldog”, whether he would prefer an ape for his grandfather, and a woman for his grandmother, or a man for his grandfather, and an ape for his grandmother. And Huxley really did say that he would prefer this to descent from a man conspicuous for his talents and eloquence, but who misused his gifts to ridicule science and obscure the light of truth. This and more at the very first public debate regarding Darwin’s work on evolution, only months after the publication of On the Origin of Species.

Oxf-uni-mus-nhL: The Oxford Museum of Natural History, where the event took place. Click on this and other images to enlarge

The debate took place at the May 1860 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The actual exchange is whitewashed out of the account of the meeting in the gentlemanly Athenaeum, leading some historians to wonder whether it really occurred, but a recently rediscovered contemporary account places the matter beyond doubt. What I find even more interesting, however, is the way in which argument and counter-argument between Wilberforce and Huxley, and between other supporters and opponents of the concept of evolution, prefigure arguments still being used today.

image from upload.wikimedia.orgR: 150th anniversary commemorative plaque, outside the Museum

The Athenaeum account is freely available here. The fuller account, Read the rest of this entry

The “scientific method”, a needless stumbling block. With a note on falsification

Science does not have a separate special method for learning about the world, the “scientific method” as taught in schools is a damaging illusion, and the falsifiability criterion has itself been falsified

Below, R: How not to; “The Scientific Method”, as inflicted on Science Fair participants. Click to enlarge

Consider this, from a justly esteemed chemistry text:

Scientists are always on the lookout for patterns.… Once they have detected patterns, scientists develop hypotheses… After formulating a hypotheses, scientists design further experiments [emphasis in original]

Or this, from a very recent post to a popular website:

The scientific method in a nutshell:
1. Ask a question
2. Do background research
3. Construct a hypothesis
4. Test your hypothesis by doing experiments
5. Analyze your data and draw conclusions
6. Communicate your results [emphasis in original]

Then, if you find yourself nodding in agreement, consider this:

Since a scientific theory, by definition, must be testable by repeatable observations and must be capable of being falsified if indeed it were false, a scientific theory can only attempt to explain processes and events that are presently occurring repeatedly within our observations. Theories about history, although interesting and often fruitful, are not scientific theories, even though they may be related to other theories which do fulfill the criteria of a scientific theory.

If you are familiar with the creation-evolution “controversy”, you may well suspect that last example of being so much creationist waffle, intended to discredit the whole of present-day geology and evolutionary biology. And you would be right. This quotation is from Duane Gish, a major figure in the twentieth century revival of biblical literalist creationism, writing for the Institute of Creation Research.1

L: Mike Pence, ” [N]ow that we have recognised evolution as a theory… can we also consider teaching other theories of the origin of species?”

Such nonsense isn’t funny any more, if it ever was. The man who may very soon find himself President of the United States is an eloquent spokesman for creationism.

And yet Gish’s remarks seem to follow from the view of science put forward in the first two excerpts. What has gone wrong here? Practically everything. Read the rest of this entry

Creationist nonsense on geology; the odd case of Prof McIntosh D.Sc.

Image result for andy mcintoshCatastrophism versus gradualism; this controversy was laid to rest by TH Huxley in his 1869 Address to the Geological Society, but UK Young Earth Creationists persist in parading the corpse as if it presented a living challenge to current thinking. Perhaps it appeals to their absolutist binary mindset.

McIntosh himself is a member of the group mendaciously mislabelled Truth in Science, which distributed the equally mendacious neo-creationist tract Exploring Evolution to UK schools some years ago, and is an author of the error-saturated Origins, Examining the Evidence, published by that group. BCSE has published a detailed review of Exploring Evolution here.

This piece by my friend, the geologist historian Anglican priest Michael Roberts, will tell you more about McIntosh’s writing than you wish to know, but will convey a wealth of fascinating geological and historical information in the process.

Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin


Image result for andy mcintosh

One of the best selling British creationist books is Genesis for Today by Andy McIntosh, which is now in its 5th edition.

Most of the book is a popular exposition of Genesis 1 to 11 – and some of it I agree with, but not his insistence that it is literal history.

In Genesis for Today McIntosh gives three scientific appendices, which are much the same in the 1st and 5th editions.  I could either go through and nit-pick his geological errors or consider them under main headings. I have chosen the latter.

Image result

Most would think that a professor in a scientific discipline at a leading university (with a first-rate geology department) would be able to make a reasonable showing on geology.Many amateurs and non-geologists I’ve met in geological societies have a clear grasp.

From the whole of his book, other writings and…

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The Woman Who Studied the Sun

File:Cecilia Helena Payne Gaposchkin (1900-1979) (3).jpg

Cecilia Payne-Gaposhkin at work; Smithsonian Institute Archives via Wikipedia

I just came across this piece by John Gribbin, interesting for many reasons.
Glasgow University started awarding degrees to women in 1892; contrast Cambridge University’s 1948.
Auguste Comte, 1835: “We will never be able to determine the chemical composition of the stars”.
1802, Wollaston observes Fraunhofer lines
1814, Fraunhofer independently observes Fraunhofer lines. Perhaps a reader can tell me why they are named after Fraunhofer, not Wollaston
1859, Kirchhoff (of circuit laws fame) and, independently, Bunsen (of Bunsen burner fame) match Fraunhofer lines to atomic spectra, infer chemical composition of stars
1868, Lockyer correctly identifies third solar Fraunhofer line in “sodium yellow” region as due to a new element, names it “helium”
1892, Glasgow University starts awarding degrees to women
~1923 (see below), Cecilia Payne (later Payne-Gaposhkin) completes studies at Cambridge, but cannot formally graduate because she is a woman
1925, Cecilia Payne gains Ph.D. from Radcliffe; unravels highly complex (see below) Fraunhofer lines of stars; shows that, contrary to all then current expectation, stellar composition is dominated by hydrogen and helium
1948, Cambridge University starts awarding degrees to women


Posting this in response to a question I was asked.  It is essentially an extract from my book 13.8

Cecilia Payne won a scholarship to Newnham College, Cambridge (the only way she could have afforded a university education) in 1919. She studied botany, physics and chemistry, but also attended a talk by Arthur Eddington about the eclipse expedition on which he had famously “proved Einstein right” by measuring the way light from distant stars was bent by the Sun. This fired her interest in astronomy, and she visited the university’s observatory on an open night, plying the staff with so many questions that Eddington took an interest, and offered her the run of the observatory library, where she read about the latest developments in the astronomical journals.

After completing her studies (as a woman, she was allowed to complete a degree course, but could not be awarded a degree; Cambridge…

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