Nature Number 1 revisited

Just over 138 years ago, on Thursday, November 4, 1869, the prestigious science journal Nature published its first issue.

Now Nature’s entire archives have been digitized and made available online. (Not for free, alas: although you can browse the contents, you have to pay for complete articles.)

Back in 1991, when I was communications officer at the Saskatchewan Science Centre, we subscribed to Nature and received as a bonus a facsimile copy of the magazine’s very first issue.

I wrote one of my earliest science columns about it, and now that Nature’s put all their back issues online, I thought I’d go back and see what I wrote about Nature Number 1.

When that first issue came out, science’s place in society was still being established. The very term was still quite new, and the older term, “natural philosophy” still crops up in Nature’s first issue.

Teaching science in schools was just beginning to catch on, and was the focus of a long essay by W. Tuckwell.

“The teaching of science makes school-work pleasant,” Tuckwell noted, an observation with which far too many of today’s students would disagree. But in Tuckwell’s view, “The effect…on the boy’s character is beyond all dispute. It kindles some minds which nothing else could reach at all. It awakes in all minds faculties which would otherwise have continued dormant.”

(Tuckwell only discussed teaching science to boys, it obviously, to his Victorian mind, not being a subject suitable for girls.)

Students who learn science, he wrote, have minds “in which are cultivated, as nothing else can cultivate them, the priceless habits of observation, of reasoning on external phenomena, of classification, arrangement, method, judgement.”

Hear, hear!

Elsewhere in the magazine, you can see that much of what we take for granted today still a matter of debate when Nature began publishing. For instance, the atomic theory of matter was still not universally accepted, Louis Pasteur had only recently patented the preservation of wines by the process of applying heat, a process not yet called pasteurization and not yet applied to milk, and Thomas Huxley was in the process of determining which fossilized creatures were and were not “dinosaurians.”

A total eclipse of the sun over America generated a long article; scientists had only recently decided that the protuberances seen around the disk of the eclipsing moon were actually part of the sun, and the prevailing opinion was still that the corona that appears around the sun at totality was a phenomenon of the Earth’s atmosphere, though some thought it was caused by the Moon’s atmosphere. (In fact, it’s the sun’s atmosphere.)

German epidemiologist Max von Pettenkofer had not yet accepted that cholera was caused by the bacterium which fellow German Robert Koch had recently discovered. Pettenkofer insisted the real cause was a toxin that Koch’s bacteria produced only in the presence of some other, as-yet-unidentified, substance.

(Nature doesn’t mention it, but Pettenkofer was so convinced he was right he drank a culture teeming with cholera bacteria. He suffered only mild diarrhea, and felt that proved his point; in fact, he was both lucky and helped by the fact he was well-nourished to begin with. But he certainly put his money where his mouth was!)

All this should remind us that science is not a static collection of facts that, once written down, do not change. Instead, it’s a process. It goes down blind alleys (Pettenkofer’s cholera theories), it involves personalities (Nature’s first issue highlights a dispute between Pasteur and one M. Thenard), and sometimes it is dead wrong (as in the prevailing theories concerning the solar corona).

Similarly, some of what we are absolutely certain we know today is almost certainly absolutely wrong. But a great deal of it is right; and that body of accumulated, correct knowledge continues to grow and increasingly affects every aspect of human life.

In an essay in Nature Number 1, Thomas Huxley commented that, in the future, “curious readers of the back numbers of Nature will probably look on our best, ‘not without a smile.'”

Now that all those “back numbers” are online, curious readers can see if he was right.

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