Category Archives: Famous scientists

Florence Nightingale, scientist, mathematician and, uh… nurse


Florence used statistics to make her case…

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm. We discuss Florence Nightingale starting at 6 minutes and 45 seconds in this clip:

[audio – Human evolution and Florence Nightingale.mp3]

Lady with the lamp (and her own cartoon it looks like!).

Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) might have been a lady with a lamp, and she might have been a nurse, but I want to tell you that she was a scientist and a mathematician too! I’ll get to that in a bit.

Born into a rich English family living in Tuscany (it was the place to go then too I suppose), Florence was pre-destined to be a young lady of leisure and to do what all in her position were expected to do: marry well and have babies. She went for option B – eschewed the pile of 20 mattresses and instead spent her life caring for those in need. Fortunately, Florence’s father saw that an education was a requirement for a well-to-do young lady and he personally tutored her in mathematics. ‘What-everrr… when am I ever going to use this in real life?’

Uh, no, Florence didn’t say that.

Soldiers in appalling wartime conditions

Rather, after being ‘called by God’ in 1837, i.e. age 17, she announced her decision to go into nursing. Unbelievably, this decision caused much consternation for her mother but she soldiered on. It was during 1854 that she and a group of 38 women who had trained under her were despatched to the Crimean War (hope they had their satnavs working – where is Crimea?) to attend to injured British soldiers.

The Crimean War was, Florence wrote, ‘calamity unparalleled in the history of calamity’. To her it was obvious that the quality of care being offered to the wounded was sorely lacking and she set about revolutionizing the way that nursing is practised – right up until today.

From the writing of Ed Hird
No operating tables. No medical supplies. No furniture.  The lack of beds, for example, meant that the best the wounded soldiers could hope for was to be laid on the floor wrapped in a blanket. Rats ran amongst the dying. On occasion, even dead bodies were forgotten about and left to rot.  There had been no washing of linen – and every shirt was crawling with vermin. Florence ordered boilers – and boilers were installed.  Florence was able to demonstrate that for every soldier killed in battle in the Crimean War, seven died of infections and preventable disease.

Florence’s contention was that cleanliness and good nutrition would go a long way to increasing survivorship – and she deduced this without really knowing about germs because people weren’t really yet studying them at that time.

Not that Data!

But how did Florence make a compelling argument to the officials back in Britain about these terrible conditions? She fell back on her early learning, realizing that statistics and data presented as pages of numbers were boring and not persuasive to politicians. Instead, she collected numbers of the wounded who benefited from her new nursing ideas and devised a persuasive way to present them – The pie chart.

Don’t let me hear you groaning about the pie chart – what a wonderful concept. It

Pie chart example – I never thought it mattered!?

can encapsulate pages of numbers and distill the outcome of an experiment so that a casual observer immediately sees what is important. Pie charts weren’t invented by Florence but she is the one most responsible for putting them to good use. In fact, she invented a type of pie chart known as a polar area diagram, or by some as a Nightingale rose diagram. Politicians back in England took one look at her data presented in such a diagram and immediately saw the benefit of doing things Florence’s way. She was given resources and staff to clean war hospitals and to bring standards of care up to reasonable levels. What came to pass was that far fewer men died as a consequence of injuries and Florence became famous the world over for her new nursing system.

One of Florence’s actual Nightingale rose diagrams illustrating the causes of mortality during the Crimean war.

In 1860, Florence established the Nightingale Training School – not for training nightingales – at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London. The school still exists and is called the Florence Nightingale School of Nursing and Midwifery.

Florence was an author, too (didn’t she sleep?). She penned Notes on Nursing in 1859 and is widely acknowledged as ‘the founder of modern nursing.’

Tireless effort and compassion helped Florence Nightingale change the world but let us not forget that she got where she did – in part – by being a mathematician and scientist!

Sally Ride – a physicist goes to space


Sally Ride was the first US woman to go into space and, at the time, the youngest American astronaut.

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm. We talk about Sally at 8 minutes 20 seconds in this clip:

[audio – Synthetic biology Halley and Sally Ride.mp3]

A physicist in space – sort of like Howard Wolowitz

Today I am paying homage to Sally who has passed away. She died earlier this week after a battle with pancreatic cancer at the age of 61. Sally was not just an astronaut but a scientist whose contribution to science needs acknowledging. Sally earned her PhD from Stanford University for her work in astrophysics and free electron laser physics.

Her major contribution to the seventh space shuttle flight lay in pioneering the use of its robot arm (always called the Canada Arm or Canadarm if you talk to a Canadian – which I am. You’d think we built the whole shuttle and launched it!)

A Nasa advertisement in the student newspaper in 1978 led to Ride becoming one of the six women among 35 new members of the astronaut corps. They brought scientific and engineering skills to a field till then the preserve of military test pilots. By the time she left Nasa, in 1987, she was the director of its exploration office.

In 1989 she became professor of physics and director of the California Space Institute at the University of California, San Diego. She co-wrote seven science books for children, and in 2001 founded Sally Ride Science, to stimulate interest in the subject in schools. The company’s chief executive, Tam O’Shaughnessy, was Ride’s partner; she survives her, as do her mother and sister.

• Sally Kristen Ride, physicist and astronaut, born 26 May 1951; died 23 July 2012

Edmund Halley (he of the comet) comes up to Oxford


The scientists of days-of-yore were multitaskers extrordinaire

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm. We talk about Edmund at 5 minutes 59 seconds in this clip:

[audio – Synthetic biology Halley and Sally Ride.mp3]

Edmund Halley – he’s on a stamp just like Jacques Cousteau

On July 24th, 1673, young Edmund Halley ‘came up’ to Oxford as a fresh-faced new student (I guess they all came up from London in those days). He attended The Queen’s College but never did get a degree out of them.

When I read about the scientists of days of yore, I am always amazed by all of their interests and accomplishments. These days we tend to specialize but Halley did everything. He:

-Was an astronomer

– charted trade winds and monsoons

-thought about the problem of gravity and convinced Issac Newton to publish his mathematical principles (Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica one of the most significant math books ever – and with publishing costs paid by Halley!).

-built a diving bell and spent much time underwater (hmmm… just like Cousteau again).

-Oh… he also discovered a comet which is now named in his honour.

Halley's Comet in 1986

Halley’s comet (not to be confused with Bill Haley and his Comets) is the most famous of the short-period comets and returns to visit us every 75-76 years.

The comet sheds a bit of its surface each time it approaches the sun and heats up – at the rate its melting, it looks like its only got a few tens of thousands of years left. Be sure not to miss it in 2061 (tickets on sale now at usual outlets).

World’s most prolific inventor – Dr NakaMats


Dr NakaMats – certainly a colourful fellow!

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm. We discuss NakaMats starting at 4 minutes and 44 seconds into this clip:

[audio – Cousteau and NakaMats.mp3]

Inventor of the floppy disc?


Jacques Cousteau – one of my heros


‘Philipe is wrestling with a shark!’

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm:

[audio – Cousteau and NakaMats.mp3]

Cousteau immortalized on a  stamp


Linnaeus – the father of taxonomy


Plants are grouped with close relatives based on similarities in flower parts

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm:

[audio – Linnaeus and genetic modification.mp3]

Genius of classification


Dorothy Hodgkin


Dorothy Hodgkin

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm:

[audio – Coke and Dorothy Hodgkin.mp3]

Hodgkin – an Oxford science pioneer


Marconi – the father of radio



[audio – DNA and Marconi.mp3]

Marconi invents radio


Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm:

Structure of DNA discovered


Watson and Crick and DNA

[audio – DNA and Marconi.mp3]

The DNA double helix


Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm:

Benjamin Franklin


Listen to Malcolm and I discuss benjamin Franklin and his discoveries:

[audio – Artificial intelligence and Ben Franklin.mp3]

Benjamin Franklin – Born Jan 17th 1706 – died April 17th 1790

Franklin really was an intrepid scientist as well as being an elder stateasman and one of the American Founding Fathers. He dabbled in scientific areas including ocean currents, electricity, the wave theory of light, meteorology, and temperature to name but a few.

In 1750, Franklin proposed the idea of flying a kite in a thunderstorm to demonstrate that lightening was electricity.  He acknowledged the dangers that might be associated with so doing and so it is generally believed that he didn’t do the experiment himself.

Is this really how electricity was discovered?