Friday, July 27, 2012

Another extraordinary gentleman of science

Modern science has often been associated with arrogance. Perceptions have been tempered by coining new phrases like "citizen science", but a fundamental problem arises when scientists try to carve out a profession for themselves on the lines of lawyers and medical doctors. Professions like law and medicine have formalized their institutions, created rituals, formal dresses and a range of traditions to maintain their status and set them apart - just as in religious clothing. Scientists have attempted to establish similar social structures, but this clashes with some of the fundamental bases of science. One of them is that scientific authority is built not on personalities or their alliances but rather by being able to build structured knowledge with levels of principles which can at least in theory be tested by experimentation. The ideal form is found in mathematics with axioms or theories, which are either new or traceable to and tying well with existing ideas and one that can be re-established by a repetition of the experiments/operations by "anyone" else (assuming they have the basic instruments). This makes scientific enquiry implicitly anti-authoritarian and egalitarian, unlike religions and elitist professions, even if that is not the attitude of its practitioners. The past however was very different and the non-professional "gentlemen of science" had a very different outlook.
Prinsep's illustration of an Arabian navigation aid
Some months ago, I suggested on the website of the that they consider scanning the issues of the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. I knew it would help a great deal because that was where many Indian birds were described, especially by B. H. Hodgson and Edward Blyth. A few weeks ago I was pleasantly surprised to find that a whole series had been scanned, and for the first time I was able to peruse the pages of this journal, something that no average Indian citizen can hope for in any public library in the region.

In the first few issues I learnt about an extraordinary "gentleman of science" by the name of James Prinsep. A lot has been written about him. He was apparently an Assay Master of the Mint in Benares. In modern times he might have gone by the appelation of metallurgist. A Fellow of the Royal Society he was the first editor of the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal apart from being a secretary of the Society. Several people have written about his life and work including a two volume biography, but he still appears to be a largely forgotten figure. He arrived in India at the age of 15 in 1819 and died at the age of 41 but his short life was full of accomplishment:

  • Bad eyesight makes him unsuitable as an architect, so he trains in assay and joins the Mint at Benares. His superior HH Wilson was a Sanksrit scholar and orientalist.
  • A gifted artist he draws the first map of Benaras city with every house on it in 1821 - he trained for a while as an architect
  • Maintains careful notes of hourly meteorological observations
  • On the Measurement of High Temperatures.James Prinsep. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London , Vol. 118, (1828), pp. 79-95. Notes how calibrated alloys of gold, silver and platinum can be used to measure furnace temperature - helps make him a Fellow of the Royal Society
  • Invents a super-sensitive balance
  • March 1832, writes to the Asiatic Society of Bengal (or The Asiatic Society) - asking for permission to start its journal ! The society published transactions of the meetings - an index of which was made by Prinsep in 1837. The Journal was something that was derived from a serial started in 1829 by Deputy Surveyor-General J D Herbert as "Gleanings in Science". When Captain Herbert became an Astronomer in the court of the King of Oudh in 1830, Prinsep who was associated with the threatened publication requested its continual under the auspices of the Asiatic Society.
  • Restores Aurangzeb's mosque in Benares, designs bridges
  • Deciphers the Brahmi script and the edicts of Ashoka in 1837
After his death, Calcutta named a Ghat, a street and a park after him.

There is apparently a major two volume biography of James Prinsep and being unable to actually peruse it I here suggest the addition of another contribution to the long list of this great man.
  • First documented use of volunteers to obtain meteorological data from across India
Editorial of JASB vol. 5

Prinsep appears to have distributed barometers to volunteers around India who were probably members of the Asiatic Society of Calcutta. Prinsep seems to have been a fan of instrumentation and careful measurement. His papers on pyrometry and meteorology are very careful in discussing the calibration of instruments and the sources of error. During his work at the mint, he apparently designed weighing balance with a sensitivity of 3/1000 of a gram. He also appears to have had a special interest in the visual (read printed - as opposed to lithographic) depiction of information (Edward Tufte fans please note) - his map of Benares being an early indicator. From his original notes we find that he set his mind to the easy depiction of large amounts of meteorological data, which were collected by friends (and family) who were supported by distributing barometers. He notes how pressure changes are simultaneously reflected across the country.

The friends who have for the last two years favored me with copies of their Meteorological Registers, have doubtless accused me of a most ungracious requital of their labours, in the long slumber to which they have apparently been devoted in my editorial escrutoire ! Such is not absolutely the true state of the case ; but the number attached to the accompanying plate will, I fear, testify against me to the extent of having kept back for nearly a year, the curious facta that had been elicited from the possession of so many valuable records of the weather. The fact is, that the prompt attention with which my appeal was answered by observers of the weather in numerous parts of India, served as a check to the immediate publication of the materials supplied. The very voluminous dimensions of such registers, and their dry and unperusable nature, even by the few who would like well to consult them, set me about contriving some method of condensing their results into convenient compass, and exhibiting them to the eye in a manner more perspicuous than could possibly be accomplished by a mass of mere figures.
Prinsepia utilis - named by John Forbes Royle
This painting is by the famed botanical
artist Vishnupersaud (=Vishnu Prasad)

The usual form of a diagram of zigzag lines from point to point would apply tolerably well to a series of single daily observations, taken at a particular hour, and would trace out iu a gently undulating curve, the course of annual variation ; but if made to embrace the double daily oscillation, now well known to be steadily pursued by the Barometer in intertropical climates, it was evident that the alternations would be too confused on a small scale to be followed pleasantly by the eye. A slight modification, suggested itself, as calculated to remove all objections to this mode of displaying the phenomena, without taking in any degree from the accurate notation of the fixed points of observation, while it represented more palpably the amount of daily oscillation. The modification to which I allude will be readily understood by inspection of Plate XIV. It consists in breaking the connection between the consecutive days, and merely laying off, in short parallel lines, the interval between the maximum and minimum readings of the instrument. The proximity of the lines enables the eye to fancy an imaginary line drawn centrally through them to represent the mean course, without the necessity of drawing it, while errors of the tenth  of an inch, so liable to occur,  and so difficult of detection in a series of figures, became at once obvious and remediable. The chief advantage, however, of the plan of parallel lines was, that type might be adapted to express the observations with as much facility as to a figured statement. Having the brass rules of my calendric scales already divided according to the days of the year, it only would be requisite to cast a quantity of rules of the thickness of one day, and exactly one-tenth of an inch in breadth ; the printing surface of some being retained of the full length, and that of others reduced successively one hundrtdth, two hundredths, three hundredths, &c, so that nine varieties, and a large supply of blanks or quadrates of the same dimensions, would be sufficient to lay off any series correct to the hundredth of an inch, which is ample for most purposes. I here give a sample of this mode of registry in type, although, as I had previously engraved a copper-plate divided for the purpose, I have not, on the present occasion, made any use of the typographic plan, in spite of the far greater expedition and precision of which it is capable.
Having thus explained the principles upon which the accompanying plate was filled up,—a work of no small patience by the way, seeing that it contains 13 columns of 365 double entries, or nearly 10,000 individual measurements laid off by scale to the hundredth of an inch,— I will proceed to notice, first, the authorities whence the various columns are derived ; and, secondly, the instructive and highly curious facts it discloses.
The Madras column is extracted from the registers published by Mr. Taylor, the H. C.'s Astronomer at Madras, in the Journal of the Literary Society at that place.   For the Bombay column I am indebted to my brother Assay Master, Mr. Noton, who kindly sent me copies of some registers made mostly during his absence. The series is broken in many places, and the observations between June and October, 1834, were evidently taken by an inexperienced hand. The single line marked Socotra is from the register kept by Captain Haines while engaged in the survey of the island. As the hoars chosen by him were not those of the maximum and minimum, I thought it best to confine myself to the noon readings as a mean of the day. The Calcutta columns are taken from my own registers, published in this Journal. The Tirhut diary was kept at my request by my cousin, the late Mr. Thomas Dashwood, Judge at Mozafferpur, who kept it up unremittedly for three vears and a half, indeed until a very few days before his sudden and lamented death. One year of this series has already been published at length in the 2nd and 3rd volumes of the Journal. For the Cawnpore register I am beholden to Colonel G. Pollock, C. B. of the artillery. This series is unfortunately intermittent, from his having been obliged to send his barometer to Calcutta, in December, 1334 : which, however, furnished an opportunity of comparing it with my own standard. A little to the right of the Cawnpore line for 1834, are entered the observations of Mr. Ritchie at Bancoora, for April and May, also abruptly terminated by his falling an The last series to the right I owe to Captain Robinson of the Nipal Residency; it was made partly with his own and partly with Mr. Hodgson's instrument, which will account for the shifting of the index point in June, 1834. In March also two adjustments were attempted by boiling; the tube. These do not affect the utility of the register, when once noted. Captain Robinson's tables are invaluable from the number of periods during the day they embrace, but these will be alluded to hereafter in summing up the figured abstracts. ....
Improved the Wikipedia entry at

Further reading

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A living fossil

It is not everyday that one comes across an order of insects that one has never seen before. Staring at the insects that had been attracted to light, it was immediately evident that the large and weak flying piece of colourful plastic was a Corydalid. Formerly included in the Neuroptera along with dragonflies and damselflies, it has since been placed in an order of its own, the Megaloptera.

The ancestral Megalopterans flew in a world with perhaps a single continent. The oldest trace of the group is of a fossil of a larva found in Mongolia from the Middle Jurassic. The origins of the group have been estimated to date to around 251 million years ago. There are about 130 species today and some of the extinct ones must surely have been large and frightening. The jaws still evoke awe. Their larvae are very active and a name used for them is "hellgrammite". No one quite knows the etymology of that name or for Dobsonfly, the name used for adults.

I had never heard of a Corydalid from the Western Ghats, however others had seen it before. The species we had before us was just being described formally. Another specimen from the exact same locality in which we saw it had been identified in the genus Nevromus (which apparently has priority over the spelling "Neuromus"). The species will soon receive a formal name.

"What's the use of their having names," the Gnat said, "if they won't answer to them?" "No use to them," said Alice, "but it's useful to the people that name them, I suppose. If not, why do they have names at all?"
- Lewis Carroll
The most useful thing about having a name is simply that it allows the compilation of multiple bits of information. That would require that the species lives on to observation in the wild and in the current instance, the very survival of the species is threatened.  We know nothing about the life-history of this species. For all we know, a small and restricted population could easily be eradicated by a bright light in the town.

Corydalidae from the Indian region are mainly found along the Himalayas. Their larvae are active predators with a robust body and strong mandibles. Tufts of filaments arise from their abdominal segments and a pair of appendages at the end of the abdomen help it hold on to rocks in fast moving streams. The larvae are believed to be intolerant to pollution and they need fast flowing and well aerated waters. Their life span is exceptional, taking three to four years the larvae emerge into the adult form that we see here. The adults live for just a couple of days, often without feeding with the sole purpose of mating. These habits suggest that that the species may already be on the edge. The Western Ghats hold the last major forests and water sources in the peninsula of India. Made up by upthrust strata exposing deep layers of the earth, it is an area that is being torn apart in the quest of ores. Mining companies will pay any price to support political parties that can turn a blind eye to the numerous laws that are meant to protect the environment and the interests of local people. After millions of years of survival, this species is threatened not by continental upheavals and volcanoes but by the greed of a few representatives who need money to rule the land and its people; and ironically all of us who, trapped by the little luxuries doled out, cannot question that system.


Liu, Xingyue, Yongjie Wang, Chungkun Shih, Dong Ren, and Ding Yang. ‘Early Evolution and Historical Biogeography of Fishflies (Megaloptera: Chauliodinae): Implications from a Phylogeny Combining Fossil and Extant Taxa’. PLoS ONE 7, no. 7 (July 6, 2012): e40345.

Postscript (September 2012)
The species is Nevromus austroindicus  Liu & Viraktamath, 2012 - the description is in:
Xing Yue Liu, Fumio Hayashi, Chandra A. Viraktamath and Ding Yang (2012) Systematics and biogeography of the dobsonfly genus Nevromus Rambur (Megaloptera: Corydalidae: Corydalinae) from the Oriental realm. Systematic Entomology 37: 657–669.