Recreating Science (or, “The amoeba gets it in the end”)

The availability of historical microscopes in the UTSIC collection makes it feasible to operate the U of T Chambers’ micromanipulator somewhat like it was operated by its original users in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Of the various possible uses to explore, the dissection of larger single celled organisms such as the amoeba seems most practical. Such scientific recreations (some have called this process experimental reenactment,  “reperformance”, or reworking) have become increasingly common in the humanities, and particularly the history of science, not least because they can be engaging, vivid, and memorable.

In 2009, I saw a very impressive recreation of Heirich Hertz’s 1879 experiment which demonstrated the existence of electromagnetic waves. Historian Roland Wittje used a rather terrifying historical spark gap transmitter to generate radio waves (“anyone here have a pacemaker?”). When a separate receiver—a simple antenna consisting of a loop of copper wire with a small spark gap—was moved to a place in the room that corresponded to a standing wave, a tiny spark appeared within the gap in the antenna.

Another impressive demonstration: in 2005, historian Peter Heering, used materials and expertise of the Deutches Museum in Munich to demonstrate the use of the solar microscope, eighteenth-century demonstration instrument that used the light of the sun to project an image from a prepared microscope slide into a darkened room. The instrument created a large and intense image, especially when newly prepared slides were used (the originals had deteriorated with time). Wittje and Heering are members of a movement that explores the history of science by seeking to recover the scientific experiences of the past.

"Projection of a flea (modern preparation with drying and embedding) with Dollond's solar microscope for and audience" An illustration accompanying Heering's 2008 article in BSHS.

“Projection of a flea (modern preparation with drying and embedding) with Dollond’s solar microscope for an audience”. An illustration accompanying Heering’s 2008 article in BSHS.


What can recreations tell us?

Historians of science and other academics make a variety of claims about the meaning and value of recreating past technologies and practices. One is the notion that this process allows us to fill in gaps in the textual or material record–to rediscover what has been forgotten. Most obvious are cases in which no written records exist at all. Often, in order to develop a plausible theory explaining an artefact from a vanished, non-literate human culture, archaeologists study how it was made and its practical value as a tool—experimental archaeology is the name given to recreations meant to assist this research. The famous Bâton de Commandement, a bone tool, could be ceremonial object, a spear thrower, a calendar, or a spear straightener depending on which interpretation seems most convincing to you.

Touching the history of science, recreations have been used by historians of alchemy, who study a set of practices for which textual accounts about materials and practices do exist, but whose public discourse took place in a pre-modern idiom meant only for a small community of well-studied philosophers. Modern chemical materials rarely correspond to the materials that were in use before the emergence of current chemical methodology. Historians of chemistry, including Lawrence Principe and Jennifer Rampling, use experimental recreation as one means to decode these materials and practices in order to reproduce effects reported in early modern sources. For instance, Principe reproduced a “Philosopher’s Tree”, a key point in an early modern alchemical recipe for transmuting base metal into gold, using the the laboratory notebooks, correspondence, and published texts of the 17th-century alchemist, George Starkey (1628-1665). Principe describes this experiment in his excellent book, The Secrets of Alchemy (2013, p. 165):

Following Starkey’s hints, I mixed this Mercury [i.e. a specially prepared “animated” Philosophical Mercury] with gold to produce a buttery mixture, which I placed in a flask approximating the form of the philosophical egg. The “egg” was sealed, buried in a sand bath, and heated. For several weeks, I varied the heat, since the original texts did not (and in fact could not, in the age before laboratory thermometers) provide a clear indication of the temperature used originally. The mixture did little more during this time than swell slightly, increasing in fluidity and then becoming partly covered in warty excrescences. Finally, a few days after the right temperature had apparently been achieved, I arrived at the laboratory one morning to discover that the mixture had taken on a completely new—and extraordinarily surprising—appearance overnight. Only a gray amorphous mass lay at the bottom of the flask the day before, while a grey and fully formed tree filled the vessel on the following morning.


Close-up photograph of a “Philosopher’s Tree” produced by Principe in his laboratory. This image is a scanned copy of Plate 6 in his book “The Secrets of Alchemy.”

Even in the case of relatively modern, well-documented technologies, recreations can resolve ambiguities and controversies in surviving textual accounts. Heerings account of the solar microscope, for instance, was inspired by the difficulty in reconciling the claims of its makers, which appeared mainly in advertising copy, and its nineteenth-century detractors, who typically regarded it as a toy and who may have known only inferior instruments. Heering’s recreation showed that well-made instruments and skilled demonstrators could use the instrument to produce remarkable effects during a period when scientific practice enjoyed great popularity, and was often pursued and discussed in a sociable atmosphere.

Some historians also maintain that such recreations can recover aspects of experimental practice that rarely appear in published accounts. In an article in 1995, historian Heinz Otto Sibum  discussed his recreation of a 19th century experiment by James Prescott Joule (1818-1889) that demonstrated the transformation of kinetic energy into heat. Joule’s experiment relied on a weight-driven paddle wheel mechanism operating in a vat of water whose operation would generate heat from friction which could then be measured with a thermometer. Sibum’s efforts to reproduce this remarkably complicated experiment brought him to the concept of “gestural knowledge” which describes the “complex of skills and forms of mastery” needed to successfully produce an experimental result.  From this perspective, recreation (Sibum called it “reworking”) offers a way into the  network of circumstances involved in the creation of a scientific fact—Sibum identifies the importance of the Manchester brewing tradition, a source of the gestural knowledge needed to maintain the consistency and quality of a brew, as the basis of Joule’s skill as an experimenter.  I will describe a more modest example gestural knowledge in my next post describing the process of recreating glass microtools necessary to use the Chambers’ micromanipulator.


Defining a project

It should be possible to put the Chambers’ micromanipulator into working order using existing equipment in the University of Toronto collection. This can be done without risking damage to a historical instrument that may well be unique. The instruments versatility offers a number possibilities, though other factors limit them. Of these, the availability of historical microscopes is the greatest limiting factor. Serious critical work, such as might have been done on bacteria at the University of Toronto School of Hygiene, requires powerful microscope objectives, often with matching oculars, which (for reasons that I’ll discuss in a future post), aren’t well represented in the UTSIC collection. Some equipment such as darkfield condensers and binocular microscopes (the School of Hygiene apparently used Zeiss binocular microscopes in the late 1920s) are missing entirely.

Fortunately, in 1931, Chambers’ colleagues at New York University (to which he had transferred from Cornell in 1928) produced a manual that was meant to be used to train students on the instrument. The “Manual of Micrurgy” has been digitized and is available for download from the Internet Archive. It outlines several preliminary exercises involving the dissection or injection of larger cells and living microorganisms (amoeba proteus, amoeba dubia, aciliophoran, human cheek cell). These practice experiments were meant to familiarize students with the instrument’s controls.

All of these cells are relatively easy to obtain and are visible under moderate magnification. This is important since, as an amateur microscopist, I’m less comfortable working with very high power objectives which are more  prone to accidental damage as they operate very close to the focal point and typically require the addition of immersion oil or water to period optics. These training exercises seem like a reasonable goal in a project aimed at recreating the instrument.

The Manual of Micrurgy was produced by the faculty of the New York University Department of Biology several years after Robert Chambers, inventor of the Chambers' Micromanipulator, was recruited from Cornell.

The Manual of Micrurgy was produced by the faculty of the New York University Department of Biology several years after Robert Chambers, inventor of the Chambers’ Micromanipulator, was recruited from Cornell. This digitized copy is from the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole where Chambers was then doing research.


The limits of recreation

Like any account of history, recreations are fundamentally acts of interpretation and translation which are bounded by the interests, abilities, and resources of the interpreter. Neither the yellowed eighteenth century microscope slides of the solar microscopes studied by Heering  nor the clearer modern versions using present day materials could perfectly represent what eighteenth-century audiences witnessed in their well-furnished salons. Likewise, every aspect of a recreation involving the manipulator, from the modern tungsten light bulb in the recreated microscope illuminator, to the epoxy glue binding the glassware, to the CCD used to create images through the microscope, represents a compromise.

Even if we could somehow  make our recreations perfect, past experience and knowledge would remain elusive. The historian of chemistry might recreate the authentic materials used by early modern alchemists—ambiguous and impure by the standards of modern chemistry—but she can never rid herself or her readers of an awareness of those modern standards.

A passage written by historian Adelheid Voskuhl conveys the value of this form or research. In recounting her efforts to operate a recreation of John Herschel’s (1792-1871) actinometer, an instrument for measuring the intensity of solar radiation, Voskuhl describes recreation (she calls it performance) as a means “to shift the historical object-of-research away from the document or the performance itself towards an interpretation of textual and non-textual sources that has its foundation in the analysis of a historical context where documents and practices come into being.” I take this to imply, in part, that recreation provides new ways of exploring existing evidence because it requires you to ask questions of your sources that other approaches do not. I hope that the process of setting up and using this historical instrument, which I will describe in future posts, provides some good examples of this.

Thanks to Gwyndaf Garbutt for helping me wrap my head around this topic.

One thought on “Recreating Science (or, “The amoeba gets it in the end”)

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Vol. #16 | Whewell's Ghost

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