Scientists I Should Know

This is an awesome pdf if you are a scientist. It is a great graphical representation of how we in the modern world owe our standard of living to a remarkably few people. Lex and I have bantered about how the trust network of the Anglosphere is not necessary for science. It helps, it helps a hell of a lot, but it’s not necessary, or the Russians would have reverted back to the stone age in the USSR.

Note how few people in the higher sections of those trees are English. Out of those early generations of chemists, Boyle is the earliest Englishman, but he was extremely influential because of the underlying philosophy of the Sceptical Chymist. Newton was still toying with alchemy when Boyle invented modern chemistry.

If you want a little more detail about how the geeks around you got to be that way, this is a  better site with a searchable index. I’ve traced my own scientific pedigree. While I’m not going to give you information even as far back as my scientific great-grandfather (I am paranoid about my anonymity, even though my advisor is not in that database), I will say that I only need to go back three scientific generations to find a German Ph.D., so in a very concrete way I am product of that German technical school system that I blogged about in the Perkin post. Science truly is international, and if the American corner of the Anglosphere makes for fertile ground in which science can grow, our practical bent and shorter industrial history also makes for a lesser tradition of fundamental research than on the Continent. The one exception to our dearth of theoretical chemists in the formative years of science is J.W. Gibbs, who interestingly enough held a Ph.D. in Engineering, despite his theoretical bent. More on him in a future “Scientists You Should Know”.

Back OT, here is as much information as I’d like to reveal: my Ph.D. descends in a direct line from Bunsen (of Bunsen Burner fame, not Dr. Honeydew, as some would have you  believe). Bunsen was a pretty remarkable dude:

His first publication showed that freshly precipitated ferric hydroxide is an antidote to Arsenic poisoning.  When working on poisonous cacodyl cyanide he wore a mask with a long tube to fresh air.  An explosion shattered the mask, destroyed sight in his right eye, and nearly ended his life.  He recovered, finished the study, developed methods for analyzing blast furnace gases, invented the Carbon-Zinc battery, a photometer, a calorimeter, and perfected the Bunsen burner.  He accompanied a Danish expedition to Mount Hekla which erupted in 1845 and measured geysers and hot springs in Iceland. 

The battery was probably his invention with the most modern impact, but he pretty much invented atomic emission and atomic absorption spectroscopy, the techniques that enabled man to discover the composition of the sun without coming more than 93 million miles of her:

Upon returning he carried out photochemical researches with Henry Roscoe, a lifelong friend.  He abruptly interrupted that study in 1859 when a collaborator, Gustav Robert Kirchhoff (1824-1887) reproduced a dark spectral line such as Fraunhofer had observed in the sun’s spectrum.  From Königsberg, Prussia, Kirchhoff had met Bunsen while both taught in Breslau, and came to teach and work with Bunsen in Heidelberg from 1854 to 1875.  At Kirchhoff’s suggestion they developed a spectroscope that used a lense to focus a flame’s light on a prism, then viewed the separated colors using a telescope.  When their spectroscope was used to observe a Bunsen burner flame sprinkled with table salt, a yellow line was seen that seemed to exactly matched Fraunhofer’s D-line.  In an attempt to fill in the dark solar D-line and prove the match, they simultaneously passed both sunlight and the bright yellow Sodium spectra through the spectroscope.  But instead of filling in the missing yellow color, the D-line was even darker! Kirchhoff (shown at left) worked overnight, finally discovering that he could reproduce the dark D-line artificially by passing a continuous spectrum through a bright yellow Sodium flame.  Apparently the sodium in the flame adsorbed light waves that exactly matched the vibration of Sodium.  On 15 November 1859 Bunsen (shown at right) wrote to Roscoe,

Thus a means has been found to determine the composition of the sun and fixed stars with the same accuracy as we determine sulfuric acid, chlorine, etc., with our chemical reagents.  Substances on the earth can be determined by this method just as easily as on the sun, so that, for example, I have been able to detect Lithium in 20 grams of sea water.

Bunsen’s advisor was one Friedrich Stromeyer, who obtained his doctorate in 1800, going on to discover Cadmium and invent the starch titration technique for determining iodine concentrations. Here’s where my pedigree gets weird. The geneology site lists Stromeyer has having 2 advisors: Louis Nicolas Vauquelin and Johann Friedrich Gmelin (the middle generation of the three Gmelins to hold Professorships in Germany). However, this guy* has done a little digging and found no evidence that J.F. Gmelin had an influence on the early Stromeyer. Since Stromeyer came into Gmelin’s university as a newly minted instructor, I can easily see a Herr Professor Doktor stuffed shirt taking claim for molding the boy when nothing of the sort happened.
I have a good way to check on my theory, too. Vauquelin descends from Rouelle, Bucquet, and indirectly Lavoisier, proponents of the oxygen theory. The Gmelins were big phlogiston guys. If I can find evidence that Stromeyer subscribed to phlogiston after he came to the teaching position at Göttingen, then we might have some evidence of J.F. Gmelin’s influence. Unfortunately I’ve been able to find nothing on the Net one way or another. If anyone knows something about Stromeyer’s thoughts on combustion, please drop me a line.
Vauquelin was no slouch himself, helping to isolate and purify urea, helping to discover Iridium, and discovering 2 elements on his own – Chromium and Beryllium – as well as being the first discoverer of an amino acid: asparagine.
Vauquelin’s teacher was Antoine Francois de Fourcroy, who collaborated with him on the urea and Iridium projects. Fourcroy was important for theoretical reasons, too – he fleshed out Lavoisier’s system of nomenclature, and he was one of the first to push Laviosier’s views on combustion.
Fourcroy received his degree under the direction of Jean Baptiste Michel Bucquet, the discoverer of morphine. Bucquet is extremely important to the French school. Lavoisier himself had no scientific children, being both more interested in research than teaching, and being beheaded in the Revolution for belonging to the Farmers General before he could rethink that stance. Bucquet was in Rouelle’s lab when Lavoisier was breaking new ground. They collaborated, and it is through Bucquet that the scientific line of Lavoisier has been passed down to us.
Both Bucqet and Lavoisier studied under Guillaume Francois Rouelle, the founder of the French school. He dabbled in a lot of things, including the theory of distillation, was one of the first to distinguish acidic, neutral, and basic salts, and analyzed the materials in Egyptian mummies.
Rouelle’s advisor was one J.G. Spitzley, about whom the Internet knows little, including what the initials “J.G.” stood for. It is at this point that we leave the realm of what I would term scientists, and enter the medieval world of Apothecaries and MDs, so with Rouelle we find one of those few – very few – men who started us on the path to the modern world. I’m proud to be a minor bud on that branch of the tree.
I generally don’t like “memes”, or “tagging”, but I’d  be interested to see if Jay Manifold shares a common scientific ancestry with me.
* Note that he’s a physicist. Our divergence point is the generation after Stromeyer – he descends from the polymath Mitscherlich, who moved to Stromeyer’s lab after obtaining a Ph.D. in Oriental Languages, and I descend from Bunsen.

6 thoughts on “Scientists I Should Know”

  1. …I will say that I only need to go back three scientific generations to find a German Ph.D…

    My “grandfather” was a German. Unfortunately, I have no idea of his pedigree. I thought perhaps Google might provide it, but it turns out that he bears the same name as an actor (whom I’d never heard of), so most references are to that fellow. Refining the search didn’t help.

    There was a Festschrift a while back; that probably has all the details, but I don’t have a copy. (Hmmm, turns out the publishers still have some copies left. Hmmm.)

  2. These are always lots of fun. Other examples: (which in turn links to several others)

    I recall seeing a family tree of planetary science at a Lunar & Planetary Science Conference one year, which I believe was specifically intended to trace the lineage of the geology dept at Brown, but seemed comprehensive. Can’t seem to find it at the moment — it may have been in the form of a poster or handout.

    My perception is that academic genealogies are becoming more popular, possibly because they meet a deep human fascination about our ancestors, biological and otherwise. I note that they’re becoming steadily easier to build thanks to search capabilities, and could at some point become integrated into one huge diagram: consilience through time.

    (There’s an amusing parallel here to the idea of apostolic succession. Hmmm, more ammo for the science-as-institution club I like to beat on bad ideas with. This may become a blog post over on Arcturus.)

    Me? I’m an amateur astronomer, so while I am quite flattered by the question, my genealogy would have, shall we say, an altogether different variety of legitimacy. Guess I could trace it back to Galileo with enough effort, though. ;^)

  3. My genetic, intellectual, and professional ancestors were horse thieves, bunko artists, confidence men, gamblers, pawnbrokers, fences, and few lawyers (if there is any difference between lawyers and the previously listed trades). Not a German or Frenchman among them. Jews, Gypsies, Cossacks and second floor men — the scum of the earth. I have pretty good teeth for an old guy.

  4. I forgot. The first research job my wife had as a psych grad student was working for Dr. Honeydew. She says his lab assistant was exactly like Beaker.

  5. Off topic: Robert Schwartz – one of my husband’s dearest friends taught him linguistics thirty-five years ago; he’s a Gypsy, but the number of academic Gypsies is few and far between. Do you speak Romani? It is not a tradition with much written history; is it easy to trace?

  6. Thus a means has been found to determine the composition of the sun and fixed stars with the same accuracy as we determine sulfuric acid, chlorine, etc., with our chemical reagents.

    That’s always struck me with a sense of wonder. In 1859, in a technological world of brass, wood, iron, and canvas, a world of cattle drives, steamships, daguerreotypes, and cotton gins –somebody discovered what the stars are made of. Just amazing…

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