Thursday, September 22, 2016

Maude Lina West Cleghorn: A little-known amateur entomologist

I recently came across the works of Miss Maude Lina West Cleghorn and was surprised by the breadth of her entomology research conducted in Calcutta. Miss Cleghorn actively studied insect pollination as an amateur and apparently some government-supported studies on the genetics of voltinism in silkworm in the early 1900s and remarkably little is known of her despite her being a Fellow of the (Royal) Entomological Society, the Linnean Society and the Zoological Society of London. Enquiries with the Linnean Society reveal that she was elected Fellow on the 4th of December 1913, nominated by Isaac Henry Burkill (director of the Botanic Gardens at Singapore); David Hooper (economic botanist with the Botanical Survey of India) and Lawrence Lewton-Brain (director of agriculture, Federated Malay States). Her address was given as 57, Ballygunge Circular Road, Calcutta and a bit before that period at 12, Alipore Road. All that can be found is that she died in 1946 - a single line mention of her death (as Associate Member - a class created in 1835 which according to the byelaws- "Associate Members shall be persons well known for their literary or scientific attainments, but who are not likely to apply to become Ordinary Members.") is found in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal for 1949.

Among Miss Cleghorn's studies is one on the longevity of insects, specifically silkworm. She notes in passing that a  Hypolimnas bolina lived for 92 days but she examines the lengths to which the moths live based on the season in which the pupae eclose. The graphs are very elegant summaries of her findings (Edward Tufte would admire the simple lines rather than broad bars).

Miss Cleghorn notes that adults emerging in the rainy season are short-lived

She also studied insect-pollination in some detail and especially interesting is her description of trap pollination in two species of Araceae. The first study was in 1913 on Colocasia (Kachu) and she described how cross pollination was enforced by a combination of protogyny by the flower and the timing with which the flower trapped and released carrion flies. She followed up this with a study the next year on Typhonium trilobatum (and she uses the local name Ghet-Khechu!), a member of the Araceae which has a spadix that releases a strong smell of rotting carrion in the evening and keeps the beetles overnight inside the cavity formed by the spathe. It attracts beetles including those in the Coprinae (Scarabaeidae) - and two species are identified Onthophagus tarandus and Caccobius dimiunitivus - the voucher specimens from these flowers were deposited in the Pusa collection and these life-history notes are included with some care in the Fauna of British India (Arrow, Gilbert John (1931) The Fauna of British India. Coleoptera Lammelicornia. Part III (Coprinae). London: Taylor and Francis. pp. 143-144, 181-182.)
Trap mechanism in Typhonium for beetles.

Burkill, the nominator of Cleghorn for Fellow of the Linnean Society, has a very interesting review of pollination mechanisms in Indian plants and he seconds Cleghorn's observations.

Observations of flowers on the trees with field-glasses and close ups of some flowers.
Fig. 1.—Rough sketch made from bunch actually growing on the tree, and observe 1 through field-glasses, showing young buds as seen on the morning of the 14th March.
Fig. 2.—Rough sketch of the same bunch on the morning of the 16th March, which shows the buds taking up the drooping position but with no styles projecting.
Fig. 3.—Sketch of the same bunch in Figs. I and 2, drawn on the morning of the 19th March. Tt shows the buds more pendant, and in two or three of the buds the styles appeared to be protruding slightly as far as could be made out with the glasses.
Fig 4.—Rough sketch of two bunches on the tree with buds older than those shown in Figs. 1, 2, and 3. Sketched on the morning of the 12th March. Three buds on the right bunch had styles protruding. On the left bunch one of the flowers was beginning to " ripen."  On the 13th March two more flowers on the left bunch were becoming fleshy.
Fig. 5.—The same two bunches as shown in Fig. 4, but sketched on the 14th March. The left bunch had four flowers with ripe corollas while the right bunch had two. On the loth March only one ripe flower was left on the right bunch. On the 19th March two of the younger buds of the bunch on the right had become fleshy and had styles protruding.
Fig. 6.—Sketch of two buds on a flowering branch as they appeared on the 2nd April.
Fig. 7.—The same buds sketched on the 5th April. But B which was of the same age as A when cut on the 2nd April was shedding pollen on the evening of the 5th April. The corolla at this stage is almost completely covered by the sepals.
Fig. 8.—Bud-like flower in  first  stage   sketched   on   the evening of   the 5th April.    When lightly tapped, pollen was shed  through the pore-like openings and when the style was touched through the tip of the corolla tube.
Fig. 8a.—Slightly enlarged drawing of flower in the first stage with the tip of one of the sepals turned back to show the opening through which the pollen is shed. There were two other openings just under the tip of the opposite sepals but they were not so large.

Fig. 9 —Section of flower in the first stage. At this stage the anthers are ripe and the stigma sticky and when tapped or shaken at night it produces a shower of pollen. Sketched at 2 a.m. on the 29th March.
Fig. 10.—Section of flower in second stage with much enlarged fleshy corolla, and pollen shed.    Natural size.
Fig. 11.—Sketch of fully "ripe" flower with the much enlarged and fleshy corolla. In this stage the style is about half an inch longer than it was in the first stage. Natural size.
Figs. 12-17 give sketches of a bud and flowers of different ages. The flowering branch was cut at 6-30 p.m. on the 9th April and the flowers were examined almost immediately after.
[In taking the exact measurement of the lengths of the sepals, corollas and styles the sections became slightly distorted and wider.    The exact lengths are shown in the drawings.]
Fig. 12.—Sepals much  longer than petals, style only little longer than the sepals.    Anthers immature and no pollen shed when tapped.
Fig. 13.—Pollen being shed and fleshy part of corolla still completely hidden under sepals.
Fig. 14.—Pollen being shed. Style and petal slightly longer than that of flower shown in Fig. 13.
Fig. 15.—Fleshy part slightly thicker than that in Fig. 13. Appears to be a bit older than that in Fig. 13.
Fig. 16.—Section of old flower in which corolla has fallen off. The style was much longer than the old style of that in Fig- 15, but the sepals were of the same length.
Fig. 17.—Section of old flower showing corolla shed and ovary slightly larger. Sepals the same length as that in Fig. 15, but style found to be exactly 1 cm longer.
Figs. 18-31 give the sections of all the flowers found on a bunch which was examined about 8 a.m. Altogether there were fourteen flowers and none were destroyed by bats.
Fig. 18.—Quite a young bud.
Fig. 19.—Flower in first stage shedding pollen.
Fig. 21.—Most of the pollen shed.
Fig. 26.—Pollen shed thickly.
Figs. 29.-31.—Old flowers which have lost their fleshy corollas.
Fig. 32 shows two stamens enlarged about twice the natural size.

She seems to have maintained an interest in floral biology and pollination for long and her last publication appears to be in 1922 when she wrote on the floral biology of the Mahua (Madhuca longifolia) and noted that it is quite unique and how contemporary botany texts missed out its details. She notes that contrary to some illustrations, the Mahua flower never opens up. She notes that (emphasis mine) - "the mechanism found ... in which a large portion of the actual flower is edible is a rather costly and uncertain one...and appears to be rare among plants. The only other plant with this type of mechanism, recorded so far, is Fracinclea, a pandanus-like plant of Java, which is pollinated by bats while visiting the flowers for the edible bracts." She observed flowers using field-glasses and drew diagrams to demonstrate how the pollen were dispersed through a pore on the side of the otherwise closed bud-like or berry-like flower. The pollen collects inside the closed corolla cup of the hanging flowers in the initial stage and bats going to feed on them get the underside of their wings dusted with pollen. As the flower matures the anthers wither and the corolla becomes fleshy and the stigma becomes receptive. Once the corolla is eaten the stigma is exposed and the bats deposit pollen on them. This aging mechanism ensures cross-pollination.

It seems likely from the names listed in the pages of the Journal that some of Miss Cleghorn's relatives attended the monthly meetings of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. Cleghorn also took an interest in other taxa, there is a mention of her maintaining a live Kaloula pulchra. Harold Maxwell-Lefroy (Imperial Entomologist) in 1916 notes that Miss Cleghorn was to be offered the work on cross-breeding silkworm. It appears that from 1910, "it was decided to prepare a scheme to employ Miss Cleghorn". A visit to Pusa is noted. It seems that she worked on cross-breeding European silkworm which produced high quality silk and produced just one generation a year (univoltine) and Indian varieties that produced multiple generations in a year (multi/polyvoltine) but coarser silk. Cleghorn conducted a series of breeding experiments to examine the heritability of multivoltinism and her conclusion was that multivoltinism was a dominant trait in females but recessive in males.

There is a mention of a Mr J(ames?). Cleghorn, an executive engineer at Cuttack who curiously was engaged in sericulture research. According to a Memorandum by a certain Liotard : "In Cuttack, sericulture has been carried out as an experiment since 1877 at Government expense, under the supervision of the Executive Engineer of the Mahanadi Division." and there is a comment by Mukerji, N.G. in his 1903 A monograph on the silk fabrics of Bengal-:
The reference here is no doubt to the experiments of Mr. J. Cleghorn of the Public Works Department. Mr. Cleghorn's experiments were not altogether fruitless. He published his studies of the life-history of the parasitic fly, and brought to light the great destruction caused by it. He produced some valuable races of beautifully white cocoons, both annual and poly vol tine. He also claimed to have discovered a simple means of avoiding or destroying the fly-pest. But as he could not be induced to part with his secret for less than a lakh of rupees, nothing is known with regard to his method of coping with one of the chief enemies of sericulture in Bengal. The fine races of cocoons he was rearing in conjunction with the Secretary of the Agri-Horticultural Society were not given out to the world either, and Mr. Cleghorn's researches and experiments have, therefore, left little of practical value behind. 
The fly mentioned here is of course Exorista bombycis (Tachinidae) and I wonder if this might be Miss Cleghorn's father, perhaps a clever but money-minded man.

Hopefully someone in a better position to research her life will do justice to this very observant and insightful amateur entomologist whose contributions to pollination biology are almost unknown. I bumped into this remarkable and little-known researcher while looking up on Hugh Cleghorn - one of the pioneers of forestry in India- on whom a most comprehensive biography has just been published by Henry Noltie.


Thanks are due to Lynda Brooks at the Linnean Society for tracking down some details and to Ann Sylph at the Zoological Society of London for checking their archives.


Crowdsourced Indian geology in the 1800s

Crowd might be a bit of a stretch for less than a hundred contributors but George Bellas Greenough (1769 – 1839), one of the founders of the Geological Society of London produced, posthumously, the first geological map of India which was published in 1855. Greenough was the first president of the Geological Society of London and was reportedly best known for his ability to compile and synthesize the works of others and his annual address to the Society was apparently much appreciated. He was however entirely against the idea that fossils could be used to differentiate strata and in that he failed to admire William "Strata" Smith who produced the first geological map of England. An obituarist noted that Greenough was an outspoken critic of theoretical frameworks and a "drag" on the progress of the science of geology!

Not much has been written about the history of the making of the Greenough map of Indian geology - it was begun somewhere in 1853 and was finally published in 1855 and consisted of four sheets and measured 7 by 5¾ foot. A small number of copies were made which are apparently collector items but hardly any are available online for anyone wishing to study the contents. The University of Minnesota has a set of scanned copies of three-fourths of the map but if you want to read it you need to download three large files (each of about 300 MB!) . I decided to stitch together these images and to enhance them a bit and since the image is legally in the public domain (ie. copyright expired), I have placed it on Wikimedia Commons. There really is a research need for examining the motivations for making this map and on how Greenough went about with it. He apparently had officers of the East India Company providing him information and he seems to have sent draft maps on which they commented. There is a very interesting compilation of the correspondence that went into the making of this map. It has numerous errors both in geology as well as in the positions and labelling but definitely something to admire for its period. 

On has to lament that nobody has made a nice geological map in recent times showing interesting regional formations, fossil localities and so on. So much for our human-centricity and recentism. 

Here is a small overview of the 1855 map. You can find and download the whole image on Wikimedia Commons.

You can zoom into this image and enjoy the details by using this viewer that uses the Flash plugin or this one that is Flash-free.

PLEA: If anyone can find a digital version of the northeast sector at a resolution that is readable, please please do let me know. 

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Tracing some ornithological roots

The years 1883-1885 were tumultuous in the history of zoology in India. A group called the Simla Naturalists' Society was formed in the summer of 1885. The founding President of the Simla group was, oddly enough, Courtenay Ilbert - who some might remember for the Ilbert Bill which allowed Indian magistrates to make judgements on British subjects. Another member of this Simla group was Henry Collett who wrote a Flora of the Simla region (Flora Simlensis). This Society vanished without much of a trace. A slightly more stable organization was begun in 1883, the Bombay Natural History Society. The creation of these organizations was precipitated by the emergence of a gaping hole. A vacuum was created with the end of an India-wide correspondence network of naturalists that was fostered by a one-man-force - that of A. O. Hume. The ornithological chapter of Hume's life begins and ends in Shimla. Hume's serious ornithology began around 1870 and he gave it all up in 1883, after the loss of years of carefully prepared manuscripts for a magnum opus on Indian ornithology, damage to his specimen collections and a sudden immersion into Theosophy which also led him to abjure the killing of animals, taking to vegetarianism and subsequently to take up the cause of Indian nationalism. The founders of the BNHS included Eha (E. H. Aitken was also a Hume/Stray Feathers correspondent), J.C. Anderson (who was a Simla naturalist) and Phipson (who was from a wine merchant family with a strong presence in Simla).

Shimla then was where Hume rose in his career (as Secretary of State, before falling) allowing him to work on his hobby project of Indian ornithology by bringing together a large specimen collection and conducting the publication of Stray Feathers. Through readings, I had a constructed a fairytale picture of the surroundings that he lived in. Richard Bowdler Sharpe, a curator at the British Museum who came to Shimla in 1885 wrote (his description  is well worth reading in full):
... Mr. Hume who lives in a most picturesque situation high up on Jakko, the house being about 7800 feet above the level of the sea. From my bedroom window I had a fine view of the snowy range. ... at last I stood in the celebrated museum and gazed at the dozens upon dozens of tin cases which filled the room ... quite three times as large as our meeting-room at the Zoological Society, and, of course, much more lofty. Throughout this large room went three rows of table-cases with glass tops, in which were arranged a series of the birds of India sufficient for the identification of each species, while underneath these table-cases were enormous cabinets made of tin, with trays inside, containing series of the birds represented in the table-cases above. All the specimens were carefully done up in brown-paper cases, each labelled outside with full particulars of the specimen within. Fancy the labour this represents with 60,000 specimens! The tin cabinets were all of materials of the best quality, specially ordered from England, and put together by the best Calcutta workmen. At each end of the room were racks reaching up to the ceiling, and containing immense tin cases full of birds. As one of these racks had to be taken down during the repairs of the north end of the museum, the entire space between the table-cases was taken up by the tin cases formerly housed in it, so that there was literally no space to walk between the rows. On the western side of the museum was the library, reached by a descent of three stops—a cheerful room, furnished with large tables, and containing, besides the egg-cabinets, a well-chosen set of working volumes. ... In a few minutes an immense series of specimens could be spread out on the tables, while all the books were at hand for immediate reference. ... we went below into the basement, which consisted of eight great rooms, six of them full, from floor to ceilings of cases of birds, while at the back of the house two large verandahs were piled high with cases full of large birds, such as Pelicans, Cranes, Vultures, &c.
I was certainly not hoping to find Hume's home as described but the situation turned out to be a lot worse. The first thing I did was to contact Professor Sriram Mehrotra, a senior historian who has published on the origins of the Indian National Congress. Prof. Mehrotra explained that Rothney Castle had long been altered with only the front facade retained along with the wood-framed conservatories. He said I could go and ask the caretaker for permission to see the grounds. He was sorry that he could not accompany me as it was physically demanding and he said that "the place moved him to tears." Professor Mehrotra also told me about how he had decided to live in Shimla simply because of his interest in Hume! I left him and walked to Christ Church and took the left branch going up to Jakhoo with some hopes. I met the caretaker of Rothney Castle in the garden where she was walking her dogs on a flat lawn, probably the same garden at the end of which there once had been a star-shaped flower bed, scene of the infamous brooch incident with Madame Blavatsky (see the theosophy section in Hume's biography on Wikipedia). It was a bit of a disappointment however as the caretaker informed me that I could not see the grounds unless the owner who lived in Delhi permitted it. Rothney Castle has changed hands so many times that it probably has nothing to match with what Bowdler-Sharpe saw and the grounds may very soon be entirely unrecognizable but for the name plaque at the entrance. Another patch of land in front of Rothney Castle was being prepared for what might become a multi-storeyed building. A botanist friend had shown me a 19th century painting of Shimla made by Constance Frederica Gordon-Cumming. In her painting, the only building visible on Jakko Hill behind Christ Church is Rothney Castle. The vegetation on Shimla has definitely become denser with trees blocking the views.
So there ended my hopes of adding good views (free-licensed images are still misunderstood in India) of Rothney Castle to the Wikipedia article on Hume. I did however get a couple of photographs from the roadside. In 2014, I managed to visit the South London Botanical Institute which was the last of Hume's enterprises. This visit enabled the addition a few pictures of his herbarium collections as well as an illustration of his bookplate which carries his personal motto.

Clearly Shimla empowered Hume, provided a stimulating environment which included several local collaborators. Who were his local collaborators in Shimla? I have only recently discovered (and notes with references are now added to the Wikipedia entry for R. C. Tytler) that Robert (of Tytler's warbler fame - although named by W E Brooks) and Harriet Tytler (of Mt. Harriet fame) had established a kind of natural history museum at Bonnie Moon in Shimla with  Lord Mayo's support. The museum closed down after Robert's death in 1872, and it is said that Harriet offered the bird specimens to the government. It would appear that at least some part of this collection went to Hume. It is said that the collection was packed away in boxes around 1873. The collection later came into possession of Mr B. Bevan-Petman who apparently passed it on to the Lahore Central Museum in 1917.

Hume's idea of mapping rainfall
to examine patterns of avian distribution
It was under Lord Mayo that Hume rose in the government hierarchy. Hume was not averse to utilizing his power as Secretary of State to further his interests in birds. He organized the Lakshadweep survey with the assistance of the navy ostensibly to examine sites for a lighthouse. He made use of government machinery in the fisheries department (Francis Day) to help his Sind survey. He used the newly formed meteorological division of his own agricultural department to generate rainfall maps for use in Stray Feathers. He was probably the first to note the connection between rainfall and bird distributions, something that only Sharpe saw any special merit in. Perhaps placing specimens on those large tables described by Sharpe allowed Hume to see geographic trends.

Hume was also able to appreciate geology (in his youth he had studied with Mantell ), earth history and avian evolution. Hume had several geologists contributing to ornithology including Stoliczka and Ball. One wonders if he took an interest in paleontology given his proximity to the Shiwalik ranges. Hume invited Richard Lydekker to publish a major note on avian osteology for the benefit of amateur ornithologists. Hume also had enough time to speculate on matters of avian biology. A couple of years ago I came across this bit that Hume wrote in the first of his Nests and Eggs volumes (published post-ornith-humously in 1889):

Nests and Eggs of Indian birds. Vol 1. p. 199
I wrote immediately to Tim Birkhead, the expert on evolutionary aspects of bird reproduction and someone with an excellent view of ornithological history (his Ten Thousand Birds is a must read for anyone interested in the subject) and he agreed that Hume had been an early and insightful observer to have suggested female sperm storage.

Shimla life was clearly a lot of hob-nobbing and people like Lord Mayo were spending huge amounts of time and money just hosting parties. Turns out that Lord Mayo even went to Paris to recruit a chef and brought in an Italian,  Federico Peliti. (His great-grandson has a nice website!) Unlike Hume, Peliti rose in fame after Lord Mayo's death by setting up a cafe which became the heart of Shimla's social life and gossip. Lady Lytton (Lord Lytton was the one who demoted Hume!) recorded that Simla folk "...foregathered four days a week for prayer meetings, and the rest of the time was spent in writing poisonous official notes about each other." Another observer recorded that "in Simla you could not hear your own voice for  the grinding of axes. But in 1884 the grinders were few. In the course of my service I saw much of Simla society,  and I think it would compare most favourably with any other town of English-speaking people of the same size. It was bright and gay. We all lived, so to speak, in glass houses. The little bungalows perched on the mountainside wherever there was a ledge, with their winding paths under the pine trees, leading to our only road, the Mall." (Lawrence, Sir Walter Roper (1928) The India We Served.)

A view from Peliti's (1922).
Peliti's other contribution was in photography and it seems like he worked with Felice Beato who also influenced Harriet Tytler and her photography. I asked a couple of Shimla folks about the historic location of Peliti's cafe and they said it had become the Grand Hotel (now a government guest house). I subsequently found that Peliti did indeed start Peliti's Grand Hotel, which was destroyed in a fire in 1922, but the centre of Shimla's social life, his cafe, was actually next to the Combermere Bridge (it ran over a water storage tank and is today the location of the lift that runs between the Mall and the Cart Road). A photograph taken from "Peliti's" clearly lends support for this location as do descriptions in Thacker's New Guide to Simla (1925). A poem celebrating Peliti's was published in Punch magazine in 1919. Rudyard Kipling was a fan of Peliti's but Hume was no fan of Kipling (Kipling seems to have held a spiteful view of liberals - "Pagett MP" has been identified by some as being based on W.S.Caine, a friend of Hume; Hume for his part had a lifelong disdain for journalists. Kipling's boss, E.K. Robinson started the British Naturalists' Association while E.K.R.'s brother Philip probably influenced Eha.

While Hume most likely stayed well away from Peliti's, we see that a kind of naturalists social network existed within the government. About Lord Mayo we read: 
Lord Mayo and the Natural History of India - His Excellency Lord Mayo, the Viceroy of India, has been making a very valuable collection of natural historical objects, illustrative of the fauna, ornithology, &c., of the Indian Empire. Some portion of these valuable acquisitions, principally birds and some insects, have been brought to England, and are now at 49 Wigmore Street, London, whence they will shortly be removed. - Pertshire Advertiser, 29 December 1870.
Another news report states:
The Early of Mayo's collection of Indian birds, &c.

Amids the cares of empire, the Earl of Mayo, the present ruler of India, has found time to form a valuable collection of objects illustrative of the natural history of the East, and especially of India. Some of these were brought over by the Countess when she visited England a short time since, and entrusted to the hands of Mr Edwin Ward, F.Z.S., for setting and arrangement, under the particular direction of the Countess herself. This portion, which consists chiefly of birds and insects, was to be seen yesterday at 49, Wigmore street, and, with the other objects accumulated in Mr Ward's establishment, presented a very striking picture. There are two library screens formed from the plumage of the grand argus pheasant- the head forward, the wing feathers extended in circular shape, those of the tail rising high above the rest. The peculiarities of the plumage hae been extremely well preserved. These, though surrounded by other birds of more brilliant covering, preserved in screen pattern also, are most noticeable, and have been much admired. There are likewise two drawing-room screens of smaller Indain birds (thrush size) and insects. They are contained in glass cases, with frames of imitation bamboo, gilt. These birds are of varied and bright colours, and some of them are very rare. The Countess, who returned to India last month, will no doubt,add to the collection when she next comes back to England, as both the Earl and herself appear to take a great interest in Illustrating the fauna and ornithology of India. The most noticeable object, however, in Mr. Ward's establishment is the representation of a fight between two tigers of great size. The gloss, grace, and spirit of the animals are very well preserved. The group is intended as a present to the Prince of Wales. It does not belong to the Mayo Collection. - The Northern Standard, January 7, 1871
And Hume's subsequent superior was Lord Northbrook about whom we read:
University and City Intelligence. - Lord Northbrook has presented to the University a valuable collection of skins of the game birds of India collected for him by Mr. A.O.Hume, C.B., a distinguished Indian ornithologist. Lord Northbrook, in a letter to Dr. Acland, assures him that the collection is very perfec, if not unique. A Decree was passed accepting the offer, and requesting the Vice-Chancellor to convey the thanks of the University to the donor. - Oxford Journal, 10 February 1877
Papilio mayo
Clearly Lord Mayo and his influence on naturalists in India is not sufficiently well understood. Perhaps that would explain the beautiful butterfly named after him shortly after his murder. It appears that Hume did not have this kind of hobby association with Lord Lytton, little wonder perhaps that he fared so badly!

Despite Hume's sharpness on many matters there were bits that come across as odd. In one article on the flight of birds he observes the soaring of crows and vultures behind his house as he sits in the morning looking towards Mahassu. He points out that these soaring birds would appear early on warm days and late on cold days but he misses the role of thermals and mixes physics with metaphysics, going for a kind of Grand Unification Theory:

And then claims that crows, like saints, sages and yogis are capable of "aethrobacy".
This naturally became a target of ridicule. We have already seen the comments of E.H. Hankin on this. Hankin wrote that if levitation was achieved by "living an absolutely pure life and intense religious concentration" the hill crow must be indulging in "irreligious sentiments when trying to descend to earth without  the help of gravity." Hankin despite his studies does not give enough credit for the forces of lift produced by thermals and his own observations were critiqued by Gilbert Walker, the brilliant mathematican who applied his mind to large scale weather patterns apart from conducting some amazing research on the dynamics of boomerangs. His boomerang research had begun even in his undergraduate years and had earned him the nickname of Boomerang Walker. On my visit to Shimla, I went for a long walk down the quiet road winding through dense woodland and beside streams to Annandale, the only large flat ground in Shimla where Sir Gilbert Walker conducted his weekend research on boomerangs. Walker's boomerang research mentions a collaboration with Oscar Eckenstein and there are some strange threads connecting Eckenstein, his collaborator Aleister Crowley and Hume's daughter Maria Jane Burnley who would later join the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. But that is just speculation!
1872 Map showing Rothney Castle

The steep road just below Rothney Castle

Excavation for new constructions just below and across the road from Rothney Castle

The embankment collapsing below the guard hut

The lower entrance, concrete constructions replace the old building

The guard hut and home are probably the only heritage structures left

I got back from Annandale and then walked down to Phagli on the southern slope of Shimla to see the place where my paternal grandfather once lived. It is not a coincidence that Shimla and my name are derived from the local deity Shyamaladevi (a version of Kali).

The South London Botanical Institute

After returning to England, Hume took an interest in botany. He made herbarium collections and in 1910 he established the South London Botanical Institute and left money in his will for its upkeep. The SLBI is housed in a quiet residential area. Here are some pictures I took in 2014, most can be found on Wikipedia.

Dr Roy Vickery displaying some of Hume's herbarium specimens

Specially designed cases for storing the herbarium sheets.

The entrance to the South London Botanical Institute

A herbarium sheet from the Hume collection

Hume's bookplate with personal motto - Industria et Perseverentia

An ornate clock which apparently adorned Rothney Castle

Further reading

 An antique book shop had a set of Hume's Nests and Eggs (Second edition) and it bore the signature of "R.W.D. Morgan" - it appears that there was a BNHS member of that name from Calcutta c. 1933. It is unclear if it is the same person as Rhodes Morgan, who was a Hume correspondent and forest officer in Wynaad/Malabar who helped William Ruxton Davison.
Update:  Henry Noltie of RBGE has pointed out to me privately that this is not the forester Rhodes Morgan (died 1919!). - September, 2016.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Isostasy and Apostasy

What?! Those two words appear to have little to do with each other,  but they were at the heart of some conflict. The conflict between geology and religion in Europe. For outsiders in places like India, this conflict is hard to understand and is definitely not a part of public understanding of science.

I came to read up about isostasy, thrown off on a tangent from a research trajectory that began with something linked to Bangalore. That research ramble included forays into the life of William Lambton, the Great Trigonometrical Survey, errors in surveying and Himalayan geology. Along the way I noticed several characters who suddenly grew in interest on a recent trip to Italy. I realized that we know so little of the evolution of science and the history of tussles between religion and science. This seems especially a gap for those of us who live in the non-Christian world where science and fiction meld into each other.

Our story begins with the Earth. Several early scientists reasoned that the Earth
Archdeacon Pratt (1809-1871)

must have been a piece of irregular material which was either hot and liquid or as bits that broke off from a solid and behaved like a fluid over time to rearrange itself into a nearly spherical form. One early scientist in particular did the mathematics of it and figured out how much it would bulge at the equator on account of its rotation about an axis. Understanding the shape of the earth was an important part of navigation and that also translated to questions of Empire and supremacy. The man we are interested in, who wrote a treatise on the physics and geometry of the earth, was a brilliant mathematician, a Cambridge Wrangler (number 3 for 1833), who decided to take up a job as a clergyman in India just to have the free time and peace of mind to pursue mathematics. He was so good at his work that he was nearly appointed Bishop. He was not appointed and instead of him they chose Bishop Cotton, after whom many schools in India are named. Alumni of that school would probably have been far more proud if their school had instead been named as Bishop Pratt School after Archdeacon of Calcutta, John Henry Pratt.
Pratt was such a brilliant applied mathematician that he was would regularly be sought to solve problems faced by engineers and officials in the government. He would evaluate the strenght of metal bridges, arches and trusses. As a member of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, he attempted to put a date on ancient Indian writings on the basis of star positions. Pratt's biggest area of research was however on the shape and structure of the Earth. Early on, Archdeacon Pratt saw mountains as a problem! The problem really was that they shouldn't exist if one assumed the fluidity of the Earth. Assuming the fluid nature of the earth and the time available for the earth to become nearly spherical, the irregularities on the surface should be far smaller. Isostasy deals with the forces that resolve that problem.  Pratt was brought to think about mountains more deeply when Surveyor General Andrew Scott Waugh  (who succeeded George Everest) came to him with data that showed an odd pattern on errors in the estimation of the heights of peaks in the Himalayas. The peaks appeared to be higher when measured from far away and when measured from closer up they seemed to lose some of that height. The source of the problem was already known as the errors were lower when star references were used but the errors became great if theodolites were used in computing angles. Theodolites use plumblines to define the vertical and it was known that plumblines lean towards mountains due to their gravitational attraction. So the angle from downward vertical defined by the plumbline to the top of the peak of a mountain is less that what you would measure if the plumbline actually pointed to the true centre of the earth.

Now Pratt looked at the data more carefully and did some calculations and found that this plumbline attraction was not as great as it ought to have been. His estimate was based on volume and density for the Himalayas. Since it did not match up he decided that the density of the Himalayas that he used must be incorrect. He then suggested the idea that below the mountains, the material was much denser and that the mountains rose like fermenting dough, fluffy and of lower density and resting on a denser base. That is isostasy (and there is a standard model in geology named after him) but Pratt was a clergyman and his other big problem was that anyone looking at geology could not fail to find fault in Christian religious teaching. Pratt was deeply disturbed and he wrote a book called Scripture and Science not at Variance in 1856 and it went through several editions. That religion and science conflicted long before Darwin is often forgotten today. Before Darwin, the central issue was the age of the earth. Calculations were attempted by many and they all differed from scriptural views by several orders of magnitude. Part of the problem in this really was that the ones who made these estimates were not "scientists" in the modern sense of the world - many of them were in fact clergymen! These were the same clergymen who had taken to natural theology / natural history in the tradition of John Ray's advice to contemplate on the Works of Creation on Sundays. The trouble was that all this contemplation led to the growth of geological knowledge which left the clergymen-scientists deeply conflicted. 
Fossils seen on a walk on an Italian mountainside.

When early Europeans saw mollusc fossils on the tops of mountains, the early geologists were quick to use it as evidence of the Biblical floods. When I saw a few fossil molluscs, in the wild so to speak, on top of a mountain near Lake Como, I was filled with ecstasy. I put myself back in time by a couple of centuries to imagine what I might have made of it. Two centuries ago there were so many ideas floating around - there were competing theories of earth origins. Some saw from the evidence of volcanoes and rocks that the earth may have been hot to start with - the plutonists - while others favoured the idea that the earth was born under water - the neptunists. I suppose neptunism was more in line with scriptural ideas. Before this there were other geological debates including that between Catastrophism vs Uniformitarianism. It is easy to see how evidence and interpretation played such a big role in the development of science. I had read and researched about at least a couple of Italian clergyman-geologists (or naturalists) who had lived in the same district that I visited. Northern Italy produced Antonio Stoppani  (a force behind the natural history museum at Milan) and Ermenegildo Pini - subscribers of the Concordismo, an Italian movement to resolve the conflict between geology and religion. This Italian school tried to settle the matter by suggesting that the scriptures were not to be read so literally. Stoppani encouraged the study of geology by everyone. He wrote a popular book called Il Bel Paese (the beautiful country) that demonstrated how a knowledge of geology enhanced one's appreciation of the country. It was a best-seller and went into numerous editions and was a standard fixture in schools for a long time. A famous cheese manufacturer named his brand of cheese Il Bel Paese and that brand is now far better known!

The Grigne mountains. At the centre of this scene an
arch of land can be seen. This was carved by water during
the Ice Age.
Some Italian cheese inspired by geology!
People who could see geological evidence had the option of keeping their ideas to themselves. Wealthy people were probably more capable of expressing ideas freely as they had less to fear. Darwin had seen the case of the Devil's Chaplain in his youth and lived in fear of upsetting religious powers. It was the support of people like  Charles Lyell that let him publish. I have wondered often if the amateur-scientific establishment in colonial India, distanced from such social tensions lived with less fear. I have not seen an analysis of  such tensions or the lack of it in the  contents of the journals of learned societies in India.

I know however of one ornithologist who was influenced by the development of secular ideas - A.O. Hume. Hume learned a bit of geology under Gideon Mantell, a friend of Charles Lyell. He came from a family with a radical political affiliation and clearly did not subscribe to many ideas of Christianity. He sought spirituality, something free of the politics of religion, in the Theosophical movement founded by Madame Blavatsky. Sadly he found that organization too corrupted for his taste. At one point he sought to have Madame Blavatsky and others removed from the Theosophical Society for trickery and dishonesty! He earned the ire of the other members when he tried to define the aim of the Theosophical movement in a book. A person signing "K.H." (the Koot Humi a pseudonym possibly of Blavatsky herself) wrote: "I dread the appearance in print of our philosophy as expounded by Mr. H. I read his three essays or chaptes on God (?)cosmogony and glimpses of the origin of things in general, and had to cross out nearly all. He makes of us ''Agnostics''!! ''We'' do not believe in God because so far, ''we have no not have proof'', etc. This is preposterously ridiculous: if he publishes what I read, I will have H.P.B. or Djual Khool deny the whole thing; as I cannot permit our sacred philosophy to be so disfigured...."

Any readers residing in London may be interested in a talk on Hume and Theosophy on 19 September 2016.

I am hoping to visit Hume's home, Rothney Castle, at Shimla in early August 2016 and my next post will be on that topic.

Further reading

 Note:A bit of amusement for those who know me!
An Italian journalist had a brief conversation and
makes a mention of my tryst with Ermenegildo Pini!

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The many shades of citizen science

Everyone is a citizen but not all have the same kind of grounding in the methods of science. Someone with a training in science should find it especially easy to separate pomp from substance. The phrase "citizen science" is a fairly recent one which has been pompously marketed without enough clarity.

In India, the label of a "scientist" is a status symbol, indeed many actually proceed on paths just to earn status. In many of the key professions (example: medicine, law) authority is gained mainly by guarded membership, initiation rituals, symbolism and hierarchies. At its roots, science differs in being egalitarian but the profession is at odds and its institutions are replete with tribal ritual and power hierarchies.

Long before the creation of the profession of science, "Victorian scientists" (who of course never called themselves that) pursued the quest for knowledge (i.e. science) and were for the most part quite good as citizens. In the field of taxonomy, specimens came to be the reliable carriers of information and they became a key aspect of most of zoology and botany. After all what could you write about or talk about if you did not have a name for the subjects under study. Specimens became currency. Victorian scientists collaborated in various ways that involved sharing information, sharing /exchanging specimens, debating ideas, and tapping a network of friends and relatives for more. Learned societies and their journals helped the participants meet and share knowledge across time and geographic boundaries.  Specimens, the key carriers of unquestionable information, were acquired for a price and there was a niche economy created with wealthy collectors, not-so-wealthy field collectors and various agencies bridging them. That economy also included the publishers of monographs, field guides and catalogues who grew in power along with organizations such as  museums and later universities. Along with political changes, there was also a move of power from private wealthy citizens to state-supported organizations. Power brings disparity and the Victorian brand of science had its share of issues but has there been progress in the way of doing science?

Looking at the natural world can be completely absorbing. The kinds of sights, sounds, textures, smells and maybe tastes can keep one completely occupied. The need to communicate our observations and reactions almost immediately makes one need to look for existing structure and framework and that is where organized knowledge a.k.a. science comes in. While the pursuit of science might seem be seen by individuals as being value neutral and objective, the settings of organized and professional science are decidedly not. There are political and social aspects to science and at least in India the tendency is to view them as undesirable and not be talked about so as to appear "professional".  

Being silent so as to appear diplomatic probably adds to the the problem. Not engaging in conversation or debate with "outsiders" (a.k.a. mere citizens) probably fuels the growing label of "arrogance" applied to scientists. Once the egalitarian ideal of science is tossed out of the window, you can be sure that "citizen science" moves from useful and harmless territory to a region of conflict and potential danger. Many years ago I saw a bit of this  tone in a publication boasting the virtues of Cornell's ebird and commented on it. Ebird was not particularly novel to me (especially as it was not the first either by idea or implementation, lots of us would have tinkered with such ideas, even I did with - BirdSpot - aimed to be federated and peer-to-peer - ideally something like torrent) but Cornell obviously is well-funded. I commented in 2007 that the wording used sounded like "scientists using citizens rather than looking upon citizens as scientists", the latter being in my view the nobler aim to achieve. Over time ebird has gained global coverage, but has remained "closed" not opening its code or discussions on software construction and by not engaging with its stakeholders. It has on the other hand upheld traditional political hierarchies and processes that ensure low-quality in parts of the world where political and cultural systems are particularly based on hierarchies of users. As someone who has watched and appreciated the growth of systems like Wikipedia it is hard not to see the philosophical differences - almost as stark as right-wing versus left-wing politics.

Do projects like ebird see the politics in "citizen-science"?
Arnstein's ladder is a nice guide to judge
the philosophy behind a project.
I write this while noting that criticisms of ebird as it currently works are slowly beginning to come out (despite glowing accounts in the past). There are comments on how it is reviewed by self-appointed police  (it seems that the problem seems to be not just in the appointment - indeed why could not have the software designers allowed anyone to question any record and put in methods to suggest alternative identifications - gather measures of confidence based on community queries and opinions on confidence measures), there are supposedly a class of user who manages something called "filters" (the problem here is not just with the idea of creating user classes but also with the idea of using manually-defined "filters", to an outsider like me who has some insight in software engineering poor-software construction is symptomatic of poor vision, guiding philosophy and probably issues in project governance ), there are issues with taxonomic changes (I heard someone complain about a user being asked to verify identification - because of a taxonomic split - that too a split that allows one to unambiguously relabel older records based on geography - these could have been automatically resolved but the lazy developers obviously prefer to get users to manage it), and there are now dangers to birds themselves. There are also issues and conflicts associated with licensing, intellectual property and so on. Now it is easy to fix all these problems piecemeal but that does not make the system better, fixing the underlying processes and philosophies is the big thing to aim for. So how do you go from a system designed for gathering data to one where you want the stakeholders to be enlightened. Well, a start could be made by first discussing in the open.

I guess many of us who have seen and discussed ebird privately could have just said I told you so, but it is not just a few nor is it new. Many of the problems were and are easily foreseeable. One merely needs to read the history of ornithology to see how conflicts worked out between the center and the periphery (conflicts between museum workers and collectors); the troubles of peer-review and open-ness; the conflicts between the rich and the poor (not just measured by wealth); or perhaps the haves and the have-nots. And then of course there are scientific issues - the conflicts between species concepts not to mention conservation issues - local versus global thinking. Conflicting aims may not be entirely solved but you cannot have an isolated software development team, a bunch of "scientists" and citizens at large expected merely to key in data and be gone. There is perhaps a lot to learn from other open-source projects and I think the lessons in the culture, politics of Wikipedia are especially interesting for citizen science projects like ebird. I am yet to hear of an organization where the head is forced to resign by the long tail that has traditionally been powerless in decision making and allowing for that is where a brighter future lies. Even better would be where the head and tail cannot be told apart.

Postscript:  Amazingly I heard from nobody involved in the activities considered harmful above - the vetting of records by a select few on ebird etc. But I have heard quite a bit from "victims" since...

There is an interesting study of fieldguides and their users in Nature - which essentially shows that everyone is quite equal in making misidentifications - just another reason why ebird developers ought to just remove this whole system creating an uber class involved in rating observations/observers.