The 366 daily episodes in 2014 were chronological snapshots of earth history, beginning with the Precambrian in January and on to the Cenozoic in December. You can find them all in the index in the right sidebar. In 2015, the daily episodes for each month were assembled into monthly packages, and a few new episodes were posted. Now, the blog/podcast is on a weekly schedule with diverse topics, and the Facebook Page showcases photos on Mineral Monday and Fossil Friday. Thanks for your interest!

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Episode 395 Connections



This episode is about some of the interesting connections that arise in science.

We’ll start with me and my first professional job as a mineralogist analyzing kidney stones. My mineralogy professor at Indiana University, Carl Beck, died unexpectedly, and his wife asked me as his only grad student to carry on his business performing analysis of kidney stones. Beck had pioneered the idea of crystallographic examination to determine mineralogy of these compounds because traditional chemical analysis was misleading. For example, some common kidney stones are chemically calcium phosphates and calcium carbonates – but they are hardly ever calcium carbonate minerals. That makes a big difference in terms of treatment, because calcium carbonate minerals can be dissolved with acids, while calcium phosphate cannot. The carbonate is actually part of the phosphate mineral structure, partially substituting for some of the phosphate. Other subtleties of mineral crystallography can distinguish between different minerals and can point to specific kinds of treatments, more than just chemistry can.

One of the most common minerals in kidney stones is called whewellite – calcium oxalate, CaC2O4 with a water molecule as part of its structure. In kidney stones it usually forms little rounded blobs, but sometimes the way the mineral grows, it makes pointy little things called jackstones, for their similarity to children’s’ jacks. And yes, those can be awfully painful, or so I’m told.  Whewellite is really rare in the natural world beyond the urinary system, but it does exist, especially in organic deposits like coal beds. Whewellite was named for William Whewell, spelled Whewell, a true polymath and philosopher at Cambridge University in England during the first half of the 19th century. He won the Royal Medal for his work on ocean tides and published studies on astronomy, economics, physics, and geology, and was a professor of mineralogy as well.

Mary Somerville, 1834 painting by
Thomas Phillips - source
Whewell coined many new words, particularly the word “scientist.” Previously such workers had been called “men of science” or “natural philosophers” – but Whewell invented the new word scientist for a woman, Mary Somerville. Somerville researched in diverse disciplines, especially astronomy, and in 1835 she became one of the first two female members of the Royal Astronomical Society, together with Caroline Herschel, discoverer of many comets and nebulae.

In 1834 Somerville published “On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences,” a synthesis reporting the latest scientific advances in astronomy, physics, chemistry, botany, and geology. William Whewell wrote a review in which he coined the word scientist for Somerville, not simply to invent a gender-neutral term analogous to “artist,” but specifically to recognize the interdisciplinary nature of her work. And even more, according to Somerville’s biographer Kathryn Neeley, Whewell wanted a word that actively celebrated “the peculiar illumination of the female mind: the ability to synthesize separate fields into a single discipline.” That was what he meant by a scientist.

Somerville was born in Scotland in 1780 and died in 1872 at age 91. Her legacy ranges from a college, an island, and a lunar crater named for her to her appearance on Scottish bank notes beginning in 2017. Besides the mineral whewellite, William Whewell is also memorialized in a lunar crater and buildings on the Cambridge campus, as well as in the word scientist, included in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1834, the same year he coined it. He died in 1866.

—Richard I. Gibson

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