Sunday, 20 November 2016

The Meaning of Science: A Public View

At the November Widnes Sci Bar meeting, the audience were asked to write down their definition of Science. This arose during a short discussion of the 19th Century meetings of the Widnes Qu'est-ce Que C'est Club (QCQC Club). For those interested there is a separate Blog site at this link. The notes were collected and some are anonymous, with others signed. The scans are presented below, in no particular order, with my attempt to translate. [If I have mis-read any of your words, please let me know: the post is easy to edit.] The first part of this post is simply to report back with the answers. The second part will be a discussion of the significance of such an exercise and I will compare the answers with a survey of a similar number of Science students at Sheffield, that I will carry out over the next few weeks. I would then like to see whether we might extend the "survey" around other Sci Bars. Many thanks for those who offered definitions, and any late entries can be added by inserting your definition in the Comments Box at the foot of the post.

Asking questions and seeking explanations on the "Physical" world around you

1. Systematic observation of phenomena
2. Logical consideration of the causes of the phenomena
3. Systematic extrapolation of the causes to predict the existence of unobserved phenomena
4. Experiments to prove 3.

 The search to understand the nature of substances and phenomena in the physical world

...from Latin: "scio" = "know" (Greek: γνῶσις - "knowledge"
). So "science" is "knowledge", ie everything that is known by anyone anywhere. "Science" is categorised as "political", "natural", "social", "information", etc. Nothing, natural or supernatural is outside the scope of Science.

Pursuit of knowledge through systematic investigation

To gain a better understanding of the world about us. This could lead to improvements in our quality of life, perhaps.

This is a flow chart to explain the process of experimental Science, which I think is self explanatory

To gain a better understanding of the world about us. This could lead to improvements in our quality of life, perhaps.

The understanding of both numerical and less quantitative processes of the Universe by analysis and of observation

The study of why and how things happen


Science to a non-scientist:
In Labs
Taking and testing materials
Lots of Labs working on many things
In white coats
Taking measurements
Making conclusions  

Science is the study of the world around us -done in an orderly progressive manner- to explain the world we live in

A specific attitude -methodology - body of knowledge of a "scientific" nature - umbrella term for enquiry (interest it occurs) - a specific philosophy and way of seeing the physical world

 Philosophy asks the questions, Science answers them. Science: the objective search for reality


The interpretation of all the processes of life in the universe and beyond in order to understand and predict the history and future of all of these processes by analysis

Study/advancement of knowledge of Nature by means of verifying theory by experiment

Science is the pursuit of knowledge of the physical environment

The study of all that exists, all that has existed and all that will exist


Science is the attempt to explain life

Empirical study of the natural world through observation and experiment. In relation to biology, chemistry and physics

The quantitative understanding of processes of the universe by the analysis of observation.

Some published definitions for comparison

Science is the pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence. [The Science Council]

The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment [OED] 

...(knowledge from) the careful study of the structure and behaviour of the physical world, especially by watching, measuring, and doing experiments, and the development of theories to describe the results of these activities [CED]

From Merriam Webster comes a range of suggestions:
  1. the state of knowing :  knowledge as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstanding
  2. 2a :  a department of systematized knowledge as an object of study <the science of theology>b :  something (as a sport or technique) that may be studied or learned like systematized knowledge <have it down to a science>
  3. 3a :  knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific methodb :  such knowledge or such a system of knowledge concerned with the physical world and its phenomena :  natural science
  4. 4 :  a system or method reconciling practical ends with scientific laws <cooking is both a science and an art>

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Brunner Mond and Co. Part 1

Brunner, Mond and Co 

The Building of a Major Chemical Business
Part 1

Bob Roach, Dave Hornby and Walter Blackstock

The  November Sci Bar at the Hillcrest, was presented by Bob Roach, Dave Hornby, and Walter Blackstock. However probably the most important factor was the excellent level of participation from the (as always) well-informed audience. In particular, the additional historical artifacts (which will be discussed later) from Ian Campbell and the archival insights from the Catalyst's own Paul Meara. The topic was an informal consideration of the circumstances leading to the formation of one of the most successful ventures in commercial chemistry: The Brunner Mond Company. The two slide sets can be viewed from the side bar, but I thought it might be useful for those who couldn't make it, to get a feel for the meeting through this post. The presentation was divided into four parts:
1. An introduction to Chemistry and the leading lights of the 1800s (The Preamble, Hornby)

 2. A break for conversation and the an audience participation challenge to provide individual written definitions of the term "Science", in an attempt to reprise the concept of the Qu'est-ce que c'est Club. (The answers will be added shortly as scans and transcriptions) (The Qu'est-ce que c'est club Hornby and Blackstock).
 3. The story of the meeting of Mond and Brunner and the early challenges of making the Leblanc process pay its way and the incorporation of the Solvay process into the company (The Business, Roach)
4. Q & A session and lovely anecdotes concerning John Hutchinson's friendship with the parish priest of St. Bedes and the fall out at his works, from John Hutchinson's early death at the age of 40. (Discussion, everyone)

The Preamble Image result for brunner mond photoLudwig Mond arrived in Widnes in 1862 and was hired by John Hutchinson to strengthen his Leblanc plant, and to facilitate Mond's "independent" development of a sulphur recovery process. Through the company's technical manager, Henry Brunner, he was introduced to his younger brother (Sir) John Brunner, with whom he would go on to establish the Brunner-Mond Company. By chance, Mond relocated from his grim lodgings at the epicentre of the Hell on Earth that was West Bank at this time, to the much more "cosmopolitan" Appleton Village, on the way to Farnworth. Here he would develop a small social and cultural coterie.  During the mid-late 19th century, Chemistry in Germany was influenced heavily by Robert Bunsen (in Heidelberg) and Justus von Liebig (in Giessen). Both were innovative analytical chemists who made major contributions to the development of Chemistry itself, and were also responsible for training and mentoring some of the Continent's greatest Chemists, including Mond, Hurter, Muspratt, to name a few locals!
There are some fundamental lessons to learn from the Brunner Mond story that go beyond the translation of applied chemistry into an industrial setting. There are interesting insights into the vision of the young John Hutchinson, in siting his works in Widnes, and his ability to attract some of the brightest, continental scientists to join him. Much of the successes of the pioneers of the Industry were based on a rather flimsy scientific base, a newly proposed Periodic Table and a very rudimentary understanding of chemical reactivity.

The Sci Bar becomes the QCQC Club for one night only The audience at the SciBar meeting held at the Hillcrest Hotel on November the 9th (2016), over 145 years after the last QCQC Club meeting was held in Widnes, were asked to provide a definition for "Science". At the QCQC club meeting on March 27th 1870, Science was defined (and finally agreed) as follows.

Science is the study of the sequence of phenomena  (Paulatim)
Science is the term applied to those branches of human knowledge  which are, or are supposed to be, conformable to law . (Nemo)
Science is systematised experience (Unversagt)
Science is knowledge classified. (Palmam qui meruit ferat)
Science is the pursuit of the sequence of ascertained facts (Erin go Bragh)

Then,  agreed to unanimously:
Definition proposed;  Knowledge systematised

I am in the process of transcribing the individual "definitions", which will appear shortly as a supplement to this post. Thank you so much for the many of you who participated! Watch this space!

Over a beer or wine, the audience were treated to access to some artifacts that included a marvellous print of Brunner and Mond in a conversational pose, translated correspondence from Frida Mond (Ludwig's incredibly supportive wife), Brunner Mond Newsletters and documents relating to the gift of original art from the Mond estate to the National Gallery. It was a treat! 

The Business Bob began his talk with a a guided tour of the Leblanc process: the chemical nuts and bolts, the inefficiencies, the key requirement for imported sulphur and the dire problems of the Galligu dumping! The theme that emerged was Mond's obsession with eliminating waste and recycling products: all in the name of revenue protection and generation. However, no profits: no jobs! Bob gave us an overview of the Solvay process and the shrewd negotiations and implementation orchestrated by Mond, which led to the establishment of the process, not at the by now "spent" Widnes, but Winnington near Northwich. The combination of Brunner's financial and strategic business skills and Mond's creative and tenacious approach to Chemical Engineering, made this extraordinary partnership into a phenomenal success. Bob finished with the threat of a Part 2......

Discussion I for one thoroughly enjoyed the anecdotes from Mrs Campbell, the tantalising glimpse into the somewhat different attitude to money shown by Hutchinson junior, after his father's death....I hope Paul can be persuaded to talk about the Hutchinson papers sometime in the (near) future? There was a lively feel to the close of the meeting and I hope this post goes someway to capture that, for those who couldn't make it! Don't forget the slides are on the right and the definitions of Science will follow soon.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

November's SciBar presentation

Brunner, Mond and Co 

The Building of a Major Chemical Business
Part 1

Bob Roach and David Hornby (with help from Walter Blackstock)

John Brunner, a business man from Liverpool and Ludwig Mond, a chemist from Germany, met when both were working for John Hutchinson, who had established the first Leblanc chemical factory in Widnes. They eventually took the bold step of setting up Brunner, Mond and Co. in Northwich to make alkali using the new Solvay process. Part 1 will cover the factors that influenced and prepared them; how they met and how they began to set up their own chemical manufacturing business. 

Part 2,  at a later SciBar will describe their struggles prior to the business becoming successful, how both became very wealthy and went on to other challenges, and the significant roles played by their descendants.

Presented by Friends of Catalyst & the Catalyst Science Discovery Centre

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Bog Oaks and Bog Bodies at Widnes Sci Bar: A Bog Blog?

Bog Oaks and Bog Bodies

Dr. Jonathan Lageard, 
Senior lecturer in Environmental Studies,
Manchester Metropolitan University

Widnes SciBar - 11th May 2016

[You can read more about Jonathan's professional work here.]

Types of Bog Bogs form when plants grow and die in locations where there is permanent wetness for many, many years. In such settings, when a plant or tree dies, it doesn’t fully rot owing to the prevailing acidic and anaerobic conditions. Fresh growth then develops on top of what is lying in the bog. Common bog plants include sphagnum moss and cotton grass and various types of trees can grow. Over many years, a significant depth of dead vegetable matter builds up - this is peat. Peat bogs cover nearly 2-3% of the Earth’s surface and are an important carbon sink, containing a significant amount of ‘locked-away’ carbon.

Blanket Bogs (see LHS) occur in fairly flat upland areas, e.g. Pennines, west coast of Scotland; Holme Moss is one of our nearest examples. They are characterized by spiky rushes: the main source of water is rainwater rather than groundwater.

Lowland Bogs (see LHS) - occur where the drainage of water is impeded, such as in a depression. Such sites often date back to the end of the last Ice Age. In Delamere Forest, depressions were left by large blocks of ice during the retreat of the last ice age - some are filled with lakes & some with bogs.  

Chat Moss to the west of Manchester, although now much reduced by human activity, used to cover some 25 square kilometres and was 7 to 9 metres deep. It proved a challenge to Stephenson (see LHS) when he was constructing the Liverpool - Manchester railway; his solution was to lay the tracks and ballast on a bed of heather, tree branches and stones, a solution that remains effective today. Other nearby examples are large areas near Southport, e.g. Martin Mere and Balls Farm (on Marsh Rd!).

Drainage & Exploitation Peat has long been used as:-
-     a source of fuel (e.g. Scotland & Ireland). Traditionally it was cut by physical labour and stacked up in piles to dry out,
-     a soil conditioner; it improves the soil structure, mineral retention, water retention and acidity; usually the bog is drained to make it easier to extract the peat.
However, when used in these ways the trapped carbon is released as carbon dioxide.

From the mid-20th century the exaction of peat was greatly increased by the use of machinery - such commercial activity removes peat at an unsustainable rate, with vast areas of bog having been lost as a result. In some areas (e.g. Duddon Valley in the Lake District) the bog has been drained to make the land suitable for agriculture. Because sphagnum moss has antiseptic properties, it was used for wound dressing in World War I.  For some years, gas was extracted from peat in Manchester. Carrington Moss near Manchester was used for the dumping of ‘night soil’ from cesspools & privies before there was mains drainage.

Organic Record Examination of a core taken through the depth of a bed of peat can show what plants that were growing in that location at different stages over many years. A similar record can be obtained for insects such as beetles. Pollutants at different times can also be identified, e.g. the significant use of lead by the Romans. 

Lindow Man on display
Bog Bodies - Lindow Woman and Man At a commercial peat extraction business on Lindow Moss (near Wilmslow), a small train with moveable track has long been used to transfer peat from where it was dug up to a central processing plant to be sieved, with anything large such as a tree branch being removed, & then prepared for sale. In 1983 a large oval shaped piece was picked out - the workers joked about it being a dinosaur’s egg but it proved to be the head of a woman! This find became known as Lindow Woman. The find received wide media coverage & a local man confessed that he had murdered his wife & buried her body in the peat. Radiocarbon dating subsequently established the remains were nearly 2,000 years old. The husband was convicted on the basis of his confession, the only evidence against him - his wife’s body has never been found!

Soon after (1984) what was first thought to be a branch proved to be a lower leg and foot. When the location of the digging was checked, most of the body was found - eventually called Lindow Man. Because of the possibility that this was a body recently deposited in the peat, the Police were involved & both forensic scientists & archaeologists were called in. Although accurate aging of the body was not possible due to disturbance of the site of the find, it is recognized that the person died in about 200AD. Lindow Man was one of most important archaeological discoveries of the 1980s and it attracted wide public interest, not least because of what could be gleaned about his life, last meal and violent death. Lindow Man is now in the possession of the British Museum.

Further information about Lindow Man is available here.

Tree Rings - an Archive of Information Jonathan explained that when the annual rings in the trunk of a tree are examined, changes in their width and colour due to the season of the year & in weather conditions at the time can be identified. A collection of rings over several years yields a pattern akin to modern barcode that is shared by all trees of the same type growing at the same time. By studying trees of various but overlapping years, a characteristic barcoding can be built up over a thousand years or more. This record can then be used to identify the previously unknown age of any one tree to a high degree of accuracy; this form of dating can often be far more precise than carbon dating.

If a tree section includes the bark the year that the tree died or was cut down can be determined from rings immediately within the bark.

When a section through the trunk of a tree isn’t available for any reason (e.g. a growing tree, a tree that has been used as a building material), a bore can be taken through the trunk to study the tree rings.

Cross Section of a 3 000 year old Bog Oak
Bog Oaks When trees that have grown in a bog die, they remain intact whilst in the bog and provide an insight into prevailing conditions up to 5,000 years ago. Whilst they a nuisance to the mechanical peat cutters, they are what Jonathan studies, oaks in particular. Jonathan has studied the remains of oak trees found in bogs in the Mersey catchment area, and has included oak in historic buildings. He brought with him several sections on bog oak dating back up to 5,000 years ago.

Martin Mere, near Burscough (see the previous post from Alan Daglish, and below). This is a Wildlife & Wetlands Trust site &, although much of the surrounding land has been changed by human intervention, it remains a wetland where there has been a bog for hundreds of years. Several bog oaks have been uncovered and are on display at several locations around the site.

Alan Daglish, a regular at Widnes SciBar, is a volunteer in the Education Dept at Martin Mere that presents living history experiences to school children - they can visit a wetland roundhouse village and find out about historical eras such as the Celts, Romans, Vikings. There are also ‘hands on’ experiences such as pond dipping and den building. The village is open to the public Tuesdays and Wednesdays in the summer school holidays.

Accessing Manchester’s Mosslands This is a movement seeking to start the revival of the moss lands at Lindow and surrounding areas, now severely depleted due to the commercial peat removal. One approach is to return the wetness to encourage moss land growth.

Much Appreciation to Jonathan
Jonathan’s talk introduced us to new topic at the SciBar and engaged everyone - at the interval, all present were crowded around the table where the bog oak samples, up to 5,000 years old, were displayed.

Bob Roach
22nd May 2016