Philip Ball tells the story of Madame Lavoisier; translator of oxygen. At a time when science was almost a closed book to women, Madame Marie Anne Lavoisier’s skills were indispensable. A translator, illustrator and critic of scientific papers, she learnt chemistry herself and helped her husband Antoine Lavoisier develop his theory of the role played by oxygen in combustion. As modern science was taking shape it lacked any universal language, so communication in many tongues was vital to stay ahead of the game. Even today there is debate as to who can really be considered the discoverer of oxygen, but Madame Lavoisier’s gift for translation helped her husband compete against English rivals and banish their theories. Come the French Revolution however, Anton was branded a traitor to the state and sentenced to death. By a cruel twist of fate Marie lost both husband and father to the guillotine on the same day.
Philip Ball talks to Patricia Fara at the University of Cambridge, about the largely unrecognised contribution that women like Marie Anne Lavoisier made to the early days of modern science, and to Michael Gordon of Princeton University about the importance of scientific translation in the past and how it features today,
Galileo's lost letter
Galileo famously insisted in the early seventeenth century that the Earth goes round the Sun and not vice versa – an idea that got him into deep trouble with the Catholic Church. In 1633 Galileo was put in trial for heresy by the Inquisition, and was threatened with imprisonment, or worse, if he didn’t recant. Galileo spent the rest of his days under house arrest and is now seen by some as a near-martyr to science in the face of unyielding religious doctrine. But the discovery of a letter questions the received version of events. Philip Ball tells the story of the relationship between Galileo, the church and his fellow professors.
Philip talks to science historians Professor Paula Findlen of Stanford University and Professor Mary Jane Rubenstein of Wesleyan University about Galileo's time and about the history of the relationship between science and religion.
Ibn al-Haytham and How We See
Philip Ball's story is of Ibn al-Haytham, the first scientist, and his book of optics that defined how we see.
Lady Mary Montagu's Smallpox Experiment
Naomi Alderman's Science Story reveals how Lady Mary Wortley Montagu experimented on her own child in a quest to prove that smallpox inoculation works. Born in 1689 in a position of some power and influence, Lady Mary travelled to Constantinople as the wife of the ambassador to Turkey and witnessed 'variolation parties'. Here 'a nut shell' of virus on a needle is put in an opened vein to infer immunity. Having lost her own brother to smallpox and survived with terrible scaring herself, Lady Mary knew first hand the dangers of the deadly disease. She became the first person to bring smallpox inoculation to the West. Medical historian Lindsey Fiztharris tells the remarkable story of how condemned prisoners are given the opportunity to escape execution under the orders of King George I if they are given the virus and survive.
Tim Spector, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at Kings College, London, and Naomi discuss some of today's counter intuitive treatments, such as faecal transplants.
Philip Ball reveals the tale of a small booklet 'On The Six-Cornered Snowflake", written by Johannes Kepler as a New Year's gift. The C17th astronomer wished to explain the intricate and symmetrical shape of winter's tiny stars of snow. His insightful speculations about minerals and geometry was the beginning of the modern understanding of crystals.