Historian, archaeologist and authority on the Anglo-Saxons
The Anglo-Saxons retain a powerful grip on English imaginations. The discovery in 2009, just south of Watling Street, the ancient trackway paved by the Romans, of gold and silver artefacts that became known as the Staffordshire hoard attracted much attention but raised many questions. One of the few people equipped to propose solutions was Nicholas Brooks, emeritus professor of medieval history at Birmingham University, who was soon appointed to the panel co-ordinating research into the finds.
His was the kind of scholarship that reaches out to the public. Among his special interests were Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and warfare, and the payments, in the form of weapons and armour, owed by the elite as death duties to the king and recycled in the form of gifts to warriors. Nicholas convincingly explained the hoard's apparently odd composition – only the hilts and pommels of swords, for instance, not the blades – in terms of its being the working capital of one department of a royal armoury near Lichfield, the bishopric of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia. The hoard was found south-west of Lichfield, and nearby is Tamworth, site of the chief Mercian royal residence.
Nicholas, who has died aged 73 of pancreatic cancer, was not only a historian. As a young archaeologist, he identified one of King Alfred's forts, and discovered the structure of another's ramparts. An early paper, co-authored with his former school history master Harold Walker and published in Anglo-Norman Studies Vol 1 in 1978, found unsuspected evidential value in the arms and armour depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry. But his greatest achievements lay in the study of documents.
Born in Virginia Water, Surrey, Nicholas was the son of WDW Brooks, a consultant physician at St Mary's hospital, Paddington, London, and Phyllis (nee Juler), a physician's daughter and talented pianist and figure-skater. The third of their four children, he was educated at Winchester college, and graduated in history from Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1961.
His interests and imagination had been fired originally by stays at the family's holiday cottage in Kent, which lay on the continuation of Watling Street south of Canterbury. He became fascinated by Kent's historic landscape. As a mature scholar, he showed, in a brilliant foray into the 14th century, the effectiveness of the communication strategies used by Kentishmen in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381.
A series of path-breaking earlier medieval studies proved that works ordained by medieval kings to maintain the bridge over the river Medway at Rochester, and persisting in various administrative incarnations until the Bridge Trust of the present day, originated in late Roman arrangements. Nicholas's view was long, and never insular.
Anglo-Saxon Canterbury was central to Nicholas's life's work. His Oxford DPhil on the Canterbury charters, supervised by Professor Dorothy Whitelock at Cambridge, was finished in 1969 and published as The Early History of the Church of Canterbury (1984). The charters record donations of property to the church, nearly all by lay benefactors, giving details of where estates lay and how valuable they were, when they were received, on what terms leases were granted, and disputes arising later. What makes Canterbury's charters special is their large number, the fact that they mostly survive as originals, and that through them can be traced the workings of lay piety, and the buildup of Canterbury's lands through the Anglo-Saxon period, which explains its importance as a great institutional landowner with huge political clout.
The full edition of the 185 charters, completed through 30 years' further editorial labours, shared between Nicholas and his colleague Susan Kelly, with unstinting support from the British Academy, was published in the two bulky volumes of Charters of Christ Church Canterbury (2013). Canterbury's archival hoard brings to light earlier medieval English history in all its guises: religion, language (many are in Old English), law and politics, landscape and economy, and connections with continental Europe.
While still working on his DPhil, Nicholas was appointed in 1964 to his first academic post, at the University of St Andrews. There he met Chlöe Willis, whom he married in 1967, and there they stayed until 1985.
In 1978, when Nicholas became general editor of the series Studies in the Early History of Britain (later, Studies in Early Medieval Britain), he gave a memorable paper to the Royal Historical Society on King Alfred mobilising his people against Viking attacks. Thirty volumes of studies were published under his guidance, and four under his personal editorship or co-editorship: Latin and the Vernacular Languages in Early Medieval Britain (1982), St Oswald of Worcester (1996), St Wulfstan and his World (2005) and Early Medieval Studies in Memory of Patrick Wormald (2009). These publications were important in establishing an approach to Anglo-Saxon England that understood it in the context of the whole of the British Isles and contacts with continental Europe.
In 1985, Nicholas was appointed to the chair of medieval history at Birmingham University. There, history prospered under his wise and supportive headship, as did the faculty of arts during his stint as dean. He was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1989. After his retirement in 2004, a group including several of his former students, now academics themselves, produced a festschrift, Myth, Rulership, Church and Charters (2008), testimony to Nicholas's personal warmth and kindness as well as to his academic distinction.
There are two stories of Nicholas's retirement, both true. One is that he spent more time with Chlöe and the family, that he continued to enjoy gardening and walking, that he and Chlöe found new enjoyment in choral singing, and that he spent more time on bridge playing than bridge archaeology. The other is that the Canterbury charters were published, as were several substantial papers, including two of his most original on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, that he continued to supervise research students, that he presided as he had since 1991 over the British Academy's Anglo-Saxon charters project, and that he continued to sit on the fabric advisory committees of two great cathedrals, Canterbury and Worcester. King Alfred left his memory in good works; Nicholas followed suit.
He is survived by Chlöe, a daughter, Ebba, and a son, Crispin, and three grandchildren.
• Nicholas Peter Brooks, medieval historian, born 14 January 1941; died 2 February 2014
Jen Doll: You can change the way you test your verbal, College Board. You just can’t take away the memory of all that remainsJen Doll
An image taken by the Hubble telescope in 2009 shows dust and stars being ripped from galaxy ESO 137-001 as it moves through a hot galaxy cluster
Yale Environment 360: Local food effort tiny while industrial agriculture is blasting ahead at a great rate, says author, farmer and activist
Video, filmed by an astronaut from the International Space Station, shows huge plume of smoke from World Trade Centre
Video footage of the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on New York filmed from space is to be broadcast in full on British TV for the first time by Channel 4 later this month.
The footage, in which a huge plume of smoke is seen stretching from the site of the devastated World Trade Centre towers, was captured from the International Space Station by astronaut Frank Culbertson.
Hours after the attack Culbertson went on to discover his friend Chic Burlingame was one of the pilots killed during the 2001 attacks when his airliner was hijacked by terrorists.
In the Channel 4 film, part of a season of programmes about space which detail the realities of astronauts' lives, he is shown playing the Taps bugle call – which signals the end of the day for US military personnel – on a trumpet in tribute to his friend later that day.
The channel's Live From Space season next week will feature documentaries about astronauts, building up to a two-and-a-half-hour live broadcast from the ISS and Mission Control in Houston, Texas, which will feature a full 90-minute orbit of earth.
The live programme, Live From Space: Lap Of the Planet, will be screened on Sunday 16 March, presented by Dermot O'Leary and veteran astronaut Mike Massimino, whose achievements have included fixing the Hubble telescope.
Short clips from the film of the attacks on New York were released by Nasa to mark the tenth anniversary in 2011, but the film has not been seen in full with Culbertson's commentary and his bugle call.
The creative director of the Channel 4 project, Tom Brisley, said: "Not every frame has been seen before, so every frame that was shot on that day is in the show."
Executive producer Sally Dixon said: "It's the first time we have had it in that form with Frank talking us through it. If that had been in a movie you'd have gone, 'oh come on, that guy's got a trumpet?'. But reality is stranger than fiction sometimes."
It will feature in the documentary Astronauts: Houston We Have A Problem for which programme-makers have been given access to Nasa footage of some of the difficulties in space over the years.
They include film of Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano, who was close to drowning when his helmet filled with water during a space walk and he had to feel his way back to the airlock to decompress before he was able to remove the helmet, causing colleagues to fear for his life.
During other filming for the documentary – to be screened on Thursday 13 March – there was an emergency on the station when a cooling system failed, forcing the crew to make two space walks to fix it.
Dixon said: "Suddenly a valve went on a coolant pump outside and they had to shut down power to half the station to power down a lot of equipment, so we were there filming our general stuff and they let us in on meetings of all these various teams.
"They work out how will they do the space walk, people are practising in the big pool with a model of the space station underwater because it's very like microgravity.
"It was just an amazing coincidence that we happened to be filming – no space walks were filmed for Rick (Mastracchio), Koichi (Wakata) and Mike's (Hopkins) mission. It was incredible to see the teamwork that went on to work out what needed to be done and how they would do it.
Another film, Living In Space, to be shown on Wednesday, looks at the impact on the astronauts and their families and how they cope.
• To contact the MediaGuardian news desk email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 020 3353 3857. For all other inquiries please call the main Guardian switchboard on 020 3353 2000. If you are writing a comment for publication, please mark clearly "for publication".
Scientists analysing songbird DNA discovered that the spotted wren-babbler is neither a wren nor a wren-babbler, nor even a babbler. Instead, it represents an old evolutionary family that has no close living relatives.
A newly published study has uncovered a previously unknown family of songbirds that is represented by just one species. After analyzing one of the largest and most comprehensive songbird DNA databases amassed so far, researchers recovered ten distinct avian family branches in the Passerida songbird family tree, including the newly identified family, represented by the spotted wren-babbler, which lives in Asia. The data reveal that the spotted wren-babbler is neither a wren nor a wren-babbler and in fact, it has no close living relatives at all. The researchers concluded that the spotted wren-babbler is the sole representative of a unique avian family that is the earliest surviving evolutionary offshoot in Passerida.
We know more about birds than we know about any other animal group on Earth. Even on the remotest places on the planet, someone seems to be studying, filming, photographing, feeding, hunting, or watching birds. So you might think that birds have no big secrets left for us to discover.
If you think this, then you would be wrong.
A newly-published study has uncovered a surprise: a previously unknown family of songbirds that is represented by just one species. This songbird is the spotted wren-babbler, Elachura formosa (formerly Spelaeornis formosus), a little brown bird that is so shy that it's heard more often than seen as it goes about its business in dense moist forests throughout the mountains of tropical and subtropical Asia (figure 1, larger view):
This discovery was reported by an international team of researchers led by Per Alström, Associate Professor at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala and Visiting Professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. This group of scientists are working to clarify our understanding of the evolutionary history of Asian songbirds, particularly those that reside in the Himalaya Mountains.
Since DNA technology is becoming more accessible and computers are getting faster at analysing the large DNA datasets used to reconstruct phylogenies (family trees), our understanding of the evolutionary relationships amongst birds has repeatedly -- and sometimes dramatically -- changed during the past ten years. Many of these changes have been within the (mostly) Old World group of songbirds that are collectively known as "babblers".
Building upon previous molecular research, which recognises five lineages, or "clades", of babblers -- Timaliidae (Old World babblers), Leiotrichidae, Pellorneidae (ground babblers), Zosteropidae (white-eyes) and Sylviidae (Old World Warblers) -- the team collected DNA samples from representatives of all known families within the large songbird radiation, Passerida, which encompasses the five major lineages that they were targeting.
The team also included samples from some birds, particularly the Spelaeornis species -- the so-called "wren-babblers" -- that have baffled ornithologists for decades. For example, only in 2007 was it realised that Spelaeornis comprised eight species instead of five (Collar & Robson). Further, one of those newly-recognised species, the spotted wren-babbler, Spelaeornis formosus, had sufficiently distinctive morphology and vocalisations to remove it to a monotypic genus, Elachura.
But did the team expect more big surprises from this tiny chocolate-brown bird?
"The first [spotted wren-babbler] sample that we sequenced, from northeastern India ... appeared in a totally unexpected position, [so] we decided to collect more samples", said Professor Alström in email. Based upon this unanticipated finding, Professor Alström's team had a hunch that they might find something interesting if they investigated more thoroughly.
The team assembled one of the largest DNA sequence datasets ever amassed for the Passerida group, both in number of species and loci represented, and analysed those data to reconstruct a multilocus family tree (figure 2; larger view):
As expected, their reconstructed family tree recovered the four superfamilies (Sylvioidea [red], Muscicapoidea [blue], Certhioidea [greyish-blue] and Passeroidea [pink]) with strong statistical support. Also well-supported were five smaller clades (representing Remizidae+Paridae [dark red], Stenostiridae [orange], Hyliotidae [the small red line under the orange Stenostiridae], the 'bombycillids' (Bombycillidae, Hylocitreidae, Ptilogonatidae and Dulidae [greenish-blue]), Regulidae [yellow]) -- no surprises there.
But as you can clearly see, the hero of our story, the cute little spotted wren-babbler, Spelaeornis formosus, perches alone on a thin, bare twig amongst all these big basal branches (see the blue box on the far right, or refer to the closer look below, where that very special blue box appears near the bottom on the right side of the image):
Now that was a surprise. These data reveal that the spotted wren-babbler apparently typifies an old lineage within this larger passerine family tree -- a lone species representing a relictual avian family with no close living relatives.
"Within Passerida, which contains [approximately] 36 percent of all birds and 60 percent of all passerines, the spotted wren-babbler is unique, as it is the only extant species that on its own represents one of the most basal lineages", write the authors in their paper, which was just published in the peer-reviewed journal, Biology Letters.
"I doubt that we'll find another species that belongs in the same family. So the Elachura [spotted wren-babbler] is likely to be a true loner", said Professor Alström in email.
So how did this one tiny songbird manage to fool so many taxonomic experts and ornithologists for more than 100 years? Thanks to the wonders of convergent evolution, unrelated species evolve to resemble each other because they occupy similar niches. (Think: sharks and dolphins.) When convergent evolution occurs within a group of rapidly radiating animals, such as songbirds, it becomes very difficult, or just plain impossible, to determine which characters are most important for making taxonomic classifications.
Has Professor Alström ever seen this bird alive?
"Yes, I've seen it several times, both in India and China. It's extremely difficult to watch, as it inhabits dense undergrowth, often in little gullies on very steep mountain slopes", replied Professor Alström in email.
"All of the ones that I've seen I've first noticed by their distinctive song."
[Reading on a mobile device? Here's the audio link]
In their paper, the researchers proposed the new family name, Elachuridae, and recommended that the scientific name Elachura formosa be officially adopted. They also suggested that the bird's English common name be changed to Elachura. Yet despite all these big changes, this diminutive bird still retains its spots.
"It seems unlikely to me that we'll discover any other such unique lineages", said Professor Alström in email.
"[B]ut there is still much to be learnt about relationships among different bird species, and I'm sure there are still lots of surprises to be found."
Alström P., Hooper D.M., Liu Y., Olsson U., Mohan D., Gelang M., Hung L.M., Zhao J., Lei F. & Price T.D. (2014). Discovery of a relict lineage and monotypic family of passerine birds, Biology Letters, 10 (3) doi:10.1098/rsbl.2013.1067
Per Alström [emails: 5 & 6 March 2014]
Collar, N. J. & Robson, C. 2007. Family Timaliidae (Babblers) pp. 70 – 291 in; del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Christie, D.A. eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World, Vol. 12. Picathartes to Tits and Chickadees. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..GrrlScientist
Emma Brockes: The case for swearing responsibly. Because only prudes want to ban bad words, but vulgarity is best used every now and thenEmma Brockes
Researcher baffled by document written by artillery master Franz Helm featuring pictures of jetpacks strapped to cats and doves
You're a 16th century German prince plotting to crush a peasant rebellion, or perhaps you're leading an army against the Ottoman Empire or settling a score with a rival nobleman. What's a guy looking for a tactical edge to do?
The answer, of course, is rocket cats.
Fanciful illustrations from a circa-1530 manual on artillery and siege warfare seem to show jetpacks strapped to the backs of cats and doves, with the German text helpfully advising military commanders to use them to "set fire to a castle or city which you can't get at otherwise".
Digitalised by the University of Pennsylvania, the unusual, full-colour illustrations caught the attention of an Australian book blog and then found their way to researcher Mitch Fraas, who set out to unravel the mystery.
"I really didn't know what to make of it," said Fraas, a historian and digital humanities expert at Penn library. "It clearly looks like there's some sort of jet of fire coming out of a device strapped to these animals."
So were these unfortunate animals from the 1500s really wearing 20th-century technology?
Fraas' conclusion: No.
The treatise in question was written by artillery master Franz Helm of Cologne, who was believed to have fought in several skirmishes against the Turks in south-central Europe at a time when gunpowder was changing warfare.
Circulated widely and illustrated by multiple artists, Helm's manual is filled with strange and terrible imagery, from bombs packed with shrapnel to missile-like explosive devices studded with spikes.
According to Fraas's translation, Helm explained how animals could be used to deliver incendiary devices: "Create a small sack like a fire-arrow. If you would like to get at a town or castle, seek to obtain a cat from that place. And bind the sack to the back of the cat, ignite it, let it glow well and thereafter let the cat go, so it runs to the nearest castle or town, and out of fear it thinks to hide itself where it ends up in barn hay or straw it will be ignited."
In other words, capture a cat from enemy territory, attach a bomb to its back, light the fuse, then hope it runs back home and starts a raging fire.
Fraas said he could find no evidence that cats and birds were used in early modern warfare in the way prescribed by Helm.
"Sort of a harebrained scheme," he said. "It seems like a really terrible idea, and very unlikely the animals would run back to where they came from. More likely they'd set your own camp on fire."
Last month, Tech Monthly asked you to send in your images of navigation. Our favourite captured a boatman coasting on Inle Lake in MyanmarGuardian readers
Global Warming Policy Foundation ignores bad news on planet's sensitivity to carbon dioxide
Climate change contrarian "think tank" the UK's Global Warming Policy Foundation has some news.
Apparently the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been hiding "good news" on climate change.
The "good news" the IPCC apparently tried to hide is that the world's climate system is less sensitive to a doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than some scientists think it is.
The bad news for the GWPF – a secretly funded organisation founded by UK climate science sceptic Lord Nigel Lawson - is that before the ink has even dried on their new report, the organisation has been accused of cherry-picking facts to make their argument stick.
And in more bad news, one of the researchers cited by the GWPF report has told me that even if Lawson's think tank is right, then we're heading for 3C of global warming by the end of the century (which is actually very bad news).Good News, Bad News
The new GWPF report in question is written by "independent climate scientist" Nic Lewis and "freelance science writer" Marcel Crok.
The report looks at estimates of what's known as "climate sensitivity" and claims that if carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere were to double, then global average temperatures would rise between 1.25C and 3C, with a "best estimate" of 1.75C.
The last IPCC report (known as AR5) gave a "likely" range of 1.5C to 4.5C but did not provide a "best estimate" which Crok and Lewis are critical of. But first, a quick explainer on climate sensitivity.Climate sensitivity
Climate sensitivity is an area of research looking at what will happen when (because it will be when, not if) the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere reaches double what it was in pre-industrial times (about 280 parts per million). We're currently at about 400 ppm and rising at an accelerating rate of more than 2 ppm per year.
There are two measures of climate sensitivity, as I've explained before, and new research is emerging all the time.
One measure is Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity (ECS) that estimates the eventual warming of the planet's surface from a doubling of CO2 once the world's climate system has adjusted (this can take a century or more as ice sheets melt and the heat moves through the oceans and also assume that CO2 levels won't go higher, when in reality they probably will).
Another measure is Transient Climate Response (TCR) and tells you what average temperatures might be at the point in time when CO2 levels double (probably sometime in the middle to back half of this century).
In the real world, both of these numbers depend on the rate that humans keep burning fossil fuels and chopping down forests and, like all modelling and most climate science, results come with some caveats depending on the methods used.
At the moment, studies of ancient climates have found there is likely no known time in the Earth's history when CO2 has been added to the atmosphere at the rate we are currently pumping it up there right now.Oversensitive?
It's worth knowing that the GWPF has faced accusations that it has consistently made misleading statements on climate science and policy, which the organisation refutes. Lord Lawson himself accepts that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, but denies this will cause any serious problem.
Lord Lawson has refused to reveal his charity's funders, but one early donor was revealed by The Guardian to be UK-based Australian billionaire hedge fund manager Sir Michael Hintze.
GWPF reports tend to suggest that climate change won't be much of a problem, they criticise the IPCC and promote climate science denial.
The authors of the latest GWPF report say estimates of climate sensitivity in the 2007 IPCC report "were largely based on poor data and used an inappropriate statistical basis, biasing them towards higher values of climate sensitivity and thus making the global warming problem appear 'worse'."
The GWPF report says "only one" climate sensitivity study was, in their opinion, free of major defects and this study gave a best estimate of 1.6C for a doubling of CO2. That study was published in 2006 by Professor Piers Forster of the University of Leeds and Professor Jonathan Gregory, of the University of Reading.
In a glowing endorsement, the GWPF authors heap praise on Forster and Gregory's work because it "derived an estimate that was almost fully based on observations, and it did not have evident flaws such as faulty data or methodology."
I asked Professor Forster for his views on the GWPF paper. Perhaps Lewis and Crok should have done the same? A baldly honest Professor Forster told me:
Lewis and Crok use methods developed by Jonathan Gregory and myself to infer a lower climate sensitivity than that quoted in IPCC AR5. Whilst our techniques are powerful they have uncertainties and do not necessarily produce more robust estimates of climate sensitivity than other methods, as they make crude assumptions and suffer from data quality issues. Climate sensitivity remains an uncertain quantity. Nevertheless, even employing the lowest estimates suggested by Lewis and Crok, we expect continued and significant warming out to 2100 of around 3C above preindustrial if we continue to emit CO2 at current levels.
In January, Professor Steven Sherwood, director of the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, published research in Nature on the sensitivity of the climate to a doubling of carbon dioxide. The research made headlines around the world - as research published in Nature often does - yet consideration of this study is nowhere to be found in the GWPF report.
Perhaps this is because Sherwood's research was bad news? The research examined closely the role of clouds in climate models and found that lower estimates of climate sensitivity should be discounted. A doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would eventually produce at least 3C of warming but more likely 4C, the study found.
I asked Sherwood what he thought of the GWPF report. He told me:
The report is standard cherry-picking. It offers no new evidence not already considered by the IPCC, relying very heavily on a few strands of evidence that seem to point toward lower sensitivity while ignoring all the evidence pointing to higher sensitivity.
It relies heavily on the estimate by Forster and Gregory, which was an interesting effort but whose methodology has been shown not to work; this study did not cause the IPCC to conclude that sensitivity had to be low, even though both Forster and Gregory were IPCC lead authors and were obviously aware of their own paper.
But what if we're feeling generous and accept that climate sensitivity might be on the low end, even though new research suggests the opposite? What impact might this have for climate policies?
Dr Malte Meinshausen, of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany and the University of Melbourne's School of Earth Sciences, has looked at this question in a research paper just accepted to the journal Environmental Research Letters (it's not online yet but I've read it).
Even if we were to accept lower estimates for climate sensitivity, Meinshausen writes, this "only results in a delay of less than a decade in the timing of when the 2C threshold would be crossed" if no firm action were taken to cut emissions.
Meinshausen told me the most important part of the debate about climate sensitivity should be about giving the planet the best chance of avoiding the higher estimates for global warming which can't yet be discounted.
The policy should be about avoiding risk. If we shift policies to a more relaxed approach and then find the higher estimates are more likely, then we have locked ourselves into a pathway of high fossil fuel use and eliminated our chance of staying below two degrees of global warming. We want a good chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change – not one that's like guessing the toss of a coin.
Having only a 50/50 chance of avoiding dangerous climate change seems to me to be very bad news indeed.
As Dr. Strangelove passes its 50th anniversary, William Thomas suggests that director Stanley Kubrick took his characters and their ideas about nuclear strategy seriously, making his comedy all the darkerWill Thomas
From an Agatha Christie plot to a squib by George Bernard Shaw, the stories are fascinating. It's a pity there isn't space to tell some of them properly
We are all chemists: our digestive systems are enzyme-powered energy conversion retorts, everything that grows in the garden is a sophisticated chemical plant engaged in urgent solar-driven synthesis, and when we plunge a spade into the manure, we invest our effort in assorted carbonates and nitrates that can be refined into high explosives. Every day we get our hands dirty with unconscious chemical industry, and then we wash them with a chemical invention called soap.
The book in your hands is so much air, sunlight and water converted first by photosynthesis into leaf and wood which is then pulped and rolled back into another kind of leaf; the words on it are outlined in a mix of iron salts, tannins and water, and the chances are (Lars Öhrström has a lot of fun with literary connections) the book is about chemistry anyway.
August Strindberg was – to get any potential exasperation out of the way quickly – the last alchemist in Paris, except that he probably wasn't. The manic-depressive writer of Miss Julie did try to synthesise gold in a hotel near the Jardin du Luxembourg, and convinced himself that the glittering iron oxides and hydroxides he made – now preserved in two libraries in Sweden – were the real thing.
"Was Strindberg really the last alchemist in Paris? Probably not. As a part of the esoteric and the occult, alchemy is still thriving in a subculture of its own … ," Öhrström reflects. But my real dissatisfaction with the Strindberg chapter is not the teasing title. It isn't at all clear for those new to the story what it was that Strindberg actually did, and why he did what he did, and how he could have misled himself so completely.
This is a characteristic of The Last Alchemist in Paris: it is crowded with curious tales that tend to leave you a little more curious than the author intended. So crowded that some of the stories don't get told properly.
That's the complaint out of the way. It's a cliché to describe science books as detective stories: Öhrström has a talent for seeing detective stories as texts for science sermons.
So Agatha Christie's 1920 debut novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles becomes an occasion for a cheerful lecture on bromine and why it has such sinister consequences when added, as sodium bromide, to a medicinal bottle of strychnine hydrochloride tonic (yes, people were once prescribed strychnine as a nervous stimulant). Peter Hoeg's 1992 bestseller Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow becomes part of a discussion on the aluminium ore bauxite (named for the village Les Baux-de-Provence, where it was first discovered in 1822) and cryolite, or sodium hexafluoroaluminate, mined only in one settlement in southern Greenland and vital in the production of aluminium. Precious Ramotswe of Alexander McCall Smith's No 1 Ladies Detective Agency pops up twice, in discussions of uranium, and in the parallels between diamond and zircon.
None of these tales is simply told. The story of bromine also involves Herbert Dow of Dow Chemicals in Michigan, Queen Victoria's obstetrician, Jean-Martin Charcot of the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris and the long history of bromide as a tranquilliser. The bauxite chapter invokes Napoleon III, the Hall-Heroult process, a 2007 ecological thriller by "Swedish physicist and venture capitalist" Lennart Ramberg called Kyoto and the Butterflies, a wartime nautical escapade by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and "why a B17 Flying Fortress ended up in a bog in western Sweden on 24 July 1943".
Mrs Ramotswe shares her first appearance with Sir Seretse Khama and his English wife Ruth Williams, the Manhattan Project, Jan Smuts and the architect of apartheid D F Malan, and the chapter ends with Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn and Sidney Poitier. In the second, we also meet a freak wave, a capsized ship, a dramatic rescue, Admiral Hyman Rickover, the first nuclear submarine and what happened at Fukushima.
Just enjoy the disorder. Chemistry is a messy business. Öhrström is a Swede who has knocked around a bit (including in Botswana). He writes in English, and very well indeed, to remind us that physical chemistry is everywhere and can explain almost every material thing.
The upside of those all-too-brief cameo appearances in unexpected circumstances is that you learn a lot of very pleasing things: that, for instance, George Bernard Shaw was so struck by the Balfour Declaration and the role of Chaim Weizmann in fabricating an important component of cordite for the Royal Navy that he wrote an extremely short, three-act squib called Arthur and the Acetone.
You learn that in 18th century Sweden, a small army of professional "petermen" scraped up the manure from stables and barns to make potassium nitrate or saltpetre for military gunpowder, and that peterman is still English criminal slang for a safecracker. You learn an impressive amount about the physical basis for the behaviour of the elements, and you are reminded that the chemist's trade – while the starting point for all the wealth and less directly all the confused, warring history of the last three centuries – is ultimately a tale of curiosity.
To the chemist, matter is structure, a puzzle you can take to pieces and reassemble. As Öhrström writes:
"To me, this is one of the charms of chemistry: it can be mathematically complex, but also as simple as a child's tinker-toy set, relying on simple things like differences in size. From time to time we take our own tinker-toy sets out of the drawer, but more often than not these days we use a computer. And just like a little child that might be fascinated by the shape, colour, and texture of a set of balls, a chemist needs to poke and touch atoms and molecules to find out what their properties are."
Tim Radford's geographical reflection, The Address Book: Our Place in the Scheme of Things, is published by Fourth EstateTim Radford