Hello and welcome to my blog! My name is Caroline and I am a PhD student at the University of Sheffield. My research project focuses on Striga - a genus of parasitic plants that devastates harvests by infecting food crops. I am exploring the defence reactions that can make host plants more resistant against Striga. Due to my ongoing battles with anorexia, I haven't made as much progress as I would have liked but I am determined to finish the course.


This blog charts the ups and downs of life in the lab, plus my dreams to become a science communicator and forays into public engagement and science policy....all while trying to keep my mental and physical health intact. Along the way, I'll also be sharing new plant science stories, and profiles of some of the researchers who inspire me on this journey. So whether you have a fascination for plants, are curious about what science research involves, or just wonder what exactly I do all day, read on - I hope you find it entertaining!


Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Encountering a very eminent Victorian Gentleman Indeed...


Just recently, I have been comparing my lab book to that of a quite extraordinary Victorian gentleman... Henry Clifton Sorby (1826-1908) – “Sheffield’s Greatest Scientist”. Unlike most researchers today, who specialise in very narrow niches, Sorby was a pioneer in fields as diverse as metallurgy, geology, marine biology and meteorology. Keen to inspire the inquiring minds of the future, he was also a key founder of the institution where I currently work, the University of Sheffield. But how did I end up reading his Diaries? Well…I can never resist checking through the email bulletin detailing the latest volunteering opportunities at the University, and came across an ad from Museums Sheffield, who possess Sorby’s handwritten notebooks from 1859-1907. To make these accessible to all, they were looking for willing volunteers to help transcribe these documents to raise the profile of this local hero.
Sir Henry Clifton Sorby

Despite his intellectual exploits, Sorby lived all his life in Sheffield rather than being lured to the Academic Institutions in London.  Having inherited a considerable sum with the death of his father in 1847, the 21 year old Sorby found himself in the remarkable position of having the financial means to forgo work for the rest of his life, and peruse whatever took his fancy. This could have been a recipe for indulgence and pleasure, however Sorby immediately channelled his resources and energy into setting up his own laboratory and devoting himself to solving the mysteries of the time. These days, researchers can only dream of having such freedom to dedicate to pure research, without worrying about the next grant proposal or funding application!

My first challenge was deciphering the curling, crawling script,  further complicated by Sorby’s unique style of shorthand and abbreviations ( I presume 'FC' meant 'Firth Court', the oldest building of the University, but could it be 'Football Club'? ). My top tip for anyone engaged in similar tasks is this: if you can't make out a word, note where it is, then LEAVE IT and carry on ... Chances are you will come across some combination of letters later that will reveal all. I spent quite a while grappling with one sentence, before giving up and ploughing on to the next section. When I returned to the phrase, with just one look I suddenly had it - 'I awoke with swollen face and neuralgia' !!!
That Troublesome Sentence!

I felt like a detective at times as I unravelled the course of his days in 1897. For one passage, I couldn't fathom what he was up to - a lot of 'trawling', 'dredging' and 'casting off'  - until I finally came across the word 'yacht'. Googlemaps then became invaluable for deciphering place names as I followed his voyages around the East Coast. At one point, I became a bit suspicious about his doings with a certain 'Mrs Waller' who he would travel many miles to see in London and then 'sit' for her for several hours at a time... Rather than meeting an illicit mistress however, Sorby, as an eminent gentleman, was having his portrait painted! The Victorian turns of phrase were a delight (“Charming”!) and some of his friends had marvellous surnames: Shenstone, Spalding, etc. It also appeared that Sorby was a keen advocate of bringing together scientific minds to share and discuss new research. His “soirees” could perhaps be considered the forefather of the modern conference… though probably without all the company freebies!

Note the shorthand and the wonderful z s in "Drizzle"!
A typical page from my own lab book


It was interesting to compare the content with the pages of my own lab book. Whilst I feel compelled to record every minor detail of each experiment ( temperatures , times, concentrations, light intensity, etc.) to be able to answer my supervisor’s questions, Sorby’s entries are remarkably brief and leave much to the imagination. 'Draw and read' was the most common phrase, a refrain that surfaced again and again throughout the months. I used to think that this sounded very idle activity until I chanced upon some results of Sorby’s drawing in the cabinets outside the Alfred Denny museum. A gifted artist, Sorby’s depictions of the specimens he encountered are exquisite, meticulous in detail and alive with colour. The value these would have had before the age of widespread photography should not be underestimated.


In fact, the more I looked, the more evidence of Sorby’s work I found. Besides spotting his bust in the Geography department, I also found a beautiful collection of lantern slides. Perhaps one of Sorby’s greatest contributions was developing a method to prepare marine specimens to mount on microscope slides and lantern slides (see photo). At the time, this would have been the ultimate method for communicating science to a wider audience but even now, when we have the internet and camera-phones, these artefacts still have the capacity to mesmerize.
Just some of Sorby's Beautiful Lantern Slides - that I get to walk past every day at work!

The main question this task has left me with is – who was Sorby recording this for? Did he ever have an inkling that his notebooks would one day be read by unrelated future generations? Or were they merely a record for himself? In which case – why record when he went to church and what the weather was like but so little about his scientific work? And yet, one can draw parallels with today’s culture, where we photograph so many moments of our lives or capture them on video…just for the peace of mind that they are recorded there, should we want to find them.


Speaking of lab books, I had better write up my own doings for the past few days! Until next time…


For a fuller account of Sorby’s life and work see http://www.sorby.org.uk/hcsorby.shtml

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating! Reading old diaries can prove to be such an interesting pastime and provides an opportunity for us to reflect on simpler times. You make such a good point about the parallel with today's Instagram culture.

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