River of Consciousness

Review of Sacks’ The River of Consciousness

Published in the Wall Street Journal, Oct. 20, 2017 2:06 p.m. ET

Oliver Sacks Travels Down “The River of Consciousness”

Madagascar’s star orchid intrigued Darwin. He inferred a moth must exist that could reach its nectar.

After roiling the world by publishing his book “On the Origin of Species,” Charles Darwin retreated to his estate’s conservatories, not to putter about in retirement but to seek further evidence for his theory of evolution by natural selection. His greenhouses became, in the words of Oliver Sacks, “engines of war, from which he would lob great missiles of evidence at the skeptics outside.”

Sacks, the neurologist and writer who died in 2015 at age 82, relished writing about Darwin. “The River of Consciousness,” a collection of 10 previously published essays, reveals Sacks as a gleeful polymath and an inveterate seeker of meaning in the mold of Darwin and his other scientific heroes Sigmund Freud and William James.

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Harvard Magazine

Blanche Ames. Brief life of an intrepid botanical illustrator: 1878-1969

Published in Harvard Magazine, July–August, 2017

Blanche AmesBLANCHE (AMES) AMES and her husband, Oakes Ames, professor of botany at Harvard and director of the Arnold Arboretum, were in the middle of the Yucatan jungle when their car stalled. As Oakes and the driver stood by helplessly, Blanche pulled a hairpin from her chignon, extracted a bullet from her revolver, and set to repairing the carburetor. She started the car—to this day, no one knows how—and the expedition continued.
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The Seeds of Life

Review of Dolnick’s The Seeds of Life

Published in the Wall Street Journal, Jun. 2, 2017 4:38 p.m. ET

The Birth of Wisdom

It wasn’t until recently—the late 1800s—that we knew for sure where babies come from. Laura J. Snyder reviews ‘The Seeds of Life’ by Edward Dolnick.

On an autumn night in 1677, a Dutch civil servant named Antoni van Leeuwenhoek rose from his bed immediately after intercourse with his wife. He rushed to his study, lit a candle and examined a drop of his semen with his microscope. In shock he watched as tiny eels darted this way and that.

Leeuwenhoek was the first to realize that these “little animals”—sperm—existed in the semen of healthy men and were a crucial part of reproduction. But it would be almost 200 years before anyone could answer that most fundamental question: How are babies made? Edward Dolnick, former chief science writer of the Boston Globe, recounts the history of the search for an answer in his entertaining book “The Seeds of Life.”
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The Zoo

Review of Charman’s The Zoo

Published in the Wall Street Journal, Apr. 14, 2017 5:10 p.m. ET

A Zoo in Dickensian London

Society ladies and men of science came to visit Tommy the 2-foot tall chimpanzee. All were awed by his resemblance to a human child. Laura J. Snyder reviews “The Zoo” by Isobel Charman.

A curious sight greeted passengers boarding the Bristol-to-London coach one autumn day in 1835: occupying one of the seats was a 2-foot tall chimpanzee dressed in a tattered white shirt. His travel companion was Devereux Fuller, the head keeper of the London Zoo, who had just purchased Tommy off a ship that brought him from Gambia. The two had walked, hand in hand, along the quayside to the waiting carriage.

Isobel Charman, a television producer, introduces us to Tommy in “The Zoo,” her sprightly tale of the London Zoo from its conception in 1824 to the death of its longtime president in 1851.
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The Glass Universe

Review of Sobel’s The Glass Universe

Published in the Wall Street Journal, Dec. 6, 2016 7:04 p.m. ET

The Lady Computers

Williamina Fleming, who had originally been hired by the head of the Harvard Observatory as a maid, devised a classification system of 10,000 stars. Laura J. Snyder reviews “The Glass Universe” by Dava Sobel.

When astronomer John Herschel captured the first glass photograph in 1839—a picture of his father’s 40-foot telescope—he could hardly have imagined that before century’s end stargazers would be able to glimpse on glass the entire firmament. In “The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars,” science writer Dava Sobel recounts the story of a group of remarkable women who read the secrets of the skies on glass photographic plates, discovering new worlds in the heavens while forever altering the scientific world below.

In the 1880s, the Harvard Observatory was led by Edward Charles Pickering, an astronomer focused on photometry: measuring the perceived brightness of stars. Up to this time, Ms. Sobel explains, “brightness, like beauty, was defined in the eye of the beholder.” Pickering aimed to establish a scientific scale for brightness—a project requiring thousands of calculations based on stellar observations.
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The Astronomer and the Witch

Review of Rublack’s The Astronomer and the Witch

Published in the Wall Street Journal, Jan. 26, 2016 7:24 p.m. ET

Science, Sorcery and Sons

Kepler believed in witches. He probably even wondered about the potions his mother brewed. But when she was accused, he came to her aid.

More than 300 years after Salem’s famous trials, American popular culture remains preoccupied with the supposed witches of 17th-century Massachusetts. But we do not hear much about the women accused of witchcraft across the ocean during the same period in Württemberg, Germany. In “The Astronomer and the Witch: Johannes Kepler’s Fight for his Mother,” Ulinka Rublack, a professor of early modern history at the University of Cambridge, introduces us to one of these witches, Katharina Kepler, who was tried in Württemberg in 1615-21.

Katharina was the mother of Johannes Kepler, a key figure in the Scientific Revolution that had begun to sweep Europe. In 1609, as court astronomer to Emperor Rudolph II of Prague, Johannes used the remarkable naked-eye observations of his predecessor Tycho Brahe to discover that the planets orbit the sun in paths that are elliptical—overthrowing the belief in circular orbits that had held since Aristotle’s time and strengthening the arguments for a heliocentric universe. Johannes was a deeply religious Lutheran whose scientific work was imbued with spiritual beliefs. He cast horoscopes, listened to the “music of the spheres” and understood the cosmos to be a living organism possessed of a soul. Like most people of his time, he believed in the existence of witches.
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Review of Secord’s Visions of Science

My review of James Secord’s Visions of Science appeared in the Wall Street Journal on April 11th.

Science Books That Made Modernity


Thomas De Quincey claimed that certain books existed only to teach their readers, while others changed the world by transforming and motivating them. The first he called a “literature of knowledge,” the second, a “literature of power.” In “Visions of Science” James A. Secord, a professor at Cambridge, highlights seven powerful books from the 1830s that altered their age.

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“Engaging . . . . Marvelous . . . . Poetic” — The Daily Beast

I am honored to have received such a gorgeously written review by Wendy Smith in The Daily Beast, one that captures exactly what I wanted to accomplish with the book.  She starts by praising Eye of the Beholder for being “one of those engaging books that make you smarter without making you suffer,” and ends with “This poetic, inclusive approach to popular science writing makes Eye of the Beholder an unfailing pleasure to read.”

How Two Dutch Geniuses Taught Us to See

Vermeer the painter and Leeuwenhoek the scientist were contemporaries in 17th century Delft, where each man pioneered breakthroughs that upended conventional wisdom about reality.

Vermeer the painter and Leeuwenhoek the scientist were contemporaries in 17th century Delft, where each man pioneered breakthroughs that upended conventional wisdom about reality.
Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing is one of those engaging books that makes you smarter without making you suffer. Laura J. Snyder’s scholarly yet accessible narrative offers refresher courses on the Scientific Revolution and the golden age of Dutch art, contextualized in a lively portrait of 17th-century Dutch society and personalized in the stories of two brilliant innovators who happened to live in the same bustling town.

Johannes Vermeer and Antoni van Leeuwenhoek were born and baptized in Delft within four days of each other in 1632, although it’s unclear whether or not they knew each other. Snyder makes a vivid and persuasive argument, however, that Vermeer’s paintings and Leeuwenhoek’s microscopic investigations were both instances of a new way of looking at the world, driven by advances in the science of optics and an emphasis on empirical observation that was congenial to the pragmatic Dutch in many different professions.

Leeuwenhoek, in fact, began his adult life as a cloth merchant; it was during his apprenticeship in Amsterdam, Snyder plausibly speculates, that he first used a convex lens to see something inaccessible to the naked eye, in this case the thread count of fabric. He was nearly 30 when a civil service appointment enabled him to devote most of his time to making his own lenses and the microscopes that contained them. By this time, around 1660, Vermeer was painting with the aid of a camera obscura, a device that passes light through a lens and projects the image on a flat surface, giving a much more accurate reproduction of how three-dimensional scenes look in two dimensions.

“The fascination with lenses pervaded both the artistic and the scientific communities,” Snyder contends. “These communities can be seen as one, united by the shared goal of investigating nature and the collective employment of optical devices.” Her sensitive exegeses of Vermeer’s work methods show him applying what he learned from the camera obscura about alterations in color and tone to the rich hues of A View of Delft and the variegated shadows of The Milkmaid. He mimicked the device’s variations of focus—middle ground sharp, foreground and background fuzzier—in The Lacemaker; what he saw through the camera obscura fueled his extraordinary sensitivity to different intensities of light, showcased in such bravura canvases as Young Woman with a Water Pitcher.

None of this makes Vermeer a mindless transcriber of visual information, Snyder is careful to note; his technique “evok[ed] the way nature manifested itself to human vision. He was experimentally exploring the concept of sight.” Her deft pocket history of 17th-century scientists’ challenge to classical theories of vision, buttressed by the development of instruments like the telescope and microscope, shows increasing acceptance of the idea that human beings had to learn how to see; part of that process involved learning to see what was actually there, not what outdated ideas or religious dogma told them to expect to see.

It was certainly not what Leeuwenhoek expected when, in 1674, he looked at a drop of lake water through one of his microscopes and saw tiny creatures moving in it. He had discovered “a new world of living beings, a world never before seen, never before even imagined,” Snyder writes, her expressive prose capturing the excitement of the moment. Like Galileo, who some 60 years earlier had viewed the moon’s surface through a telescope, Leeuwenhoek used an optical instrument to observe things in nature formerly invisible to human eyes. Bacteria and sperm were among the other microscopic entities he was the first to identify.

Like the artists of the day, who jealously guarded their professional tools and techniques, Leeuwenhoek was secretive about his methods and refused to divulge the specifications of his microscopes. But the Royal Society of London, with which he corresponded to announce all his major discoveries, aimed to set science apart from such dubious disciplines as alchemy by stressing openness and repeatability; not until 1677, when English microscope pioneer Robert Hooke was able to discern miniscule animals frolicking in rainwater and show them to a group of Royal Society fellows, did the society officially accept Leeuwenhoek’s findings.

By then, Vermeer was dead, suddenly felled at age 43 by a “frenzy” that may have been a heart attack or stroke. He left his widow with ten dependent children and huge debts; the fact that Leeuwenhoek was appointed trustee of his beleaguered estate strongly suggests that the two men were acquainted. Snyder, as meticulous about evidence here as she was in her stimulating group biography of four 19th-century scientists (The Philosophical Breakfast Club), concludes only that this would be the “simplest” explanation.

Her main interest is not in any personal relationship Vermeer and Leeuwenhoek may have had, but in the shared spirit of empirical inquiry that made them avatars of an age that transformed the practice of both science and art. “Daring to know required, first of all, daring to see,” she reminds us in a vivid epilogue that links the guiding principle of the Scientific Revolution with the optical experiments performed by Vermeer and Leeuwenhoek in fields that did not seem as separate to them as they do to us. The book closes with a final glimpse at Vermeer’s 1668 painting The Astronomer, a figure possibly modeled on Leeuwenhoek, who leans toward a globe bathed in sunlight. In one marvelous paragraph, Snyder draws together images of mapmaking, light, and shadow to capture the 17th-century’s dream of the freer, more rational future. This poetic, inclusive approach to popular science writing makes Eye of the Beholder an unfailing pleasure to read.

“Portrait of an age of insatiable intellectual curiosity” — Daily Mail

Eye of the Beholder has received this delightful review from the Daily Mail in the UK.  I love how the author captured the experimental exuberance of the age!

A quick autopsy my love, then off to the ball: The eccentric behaviour of Dutch natural scientist Antoni van Leeuwenhoek and painter Johannes Vermeer

  • At 41 van Leeuwenhoek used his body as a guinea pig in an experiment
  • Vermeer spent hours peering into the box-like interior of a camera obscura 
  • Could Vermeer and van Leeuwenhoek have inspired each other’s work?


PUBLISHED: 16:00 EST, 23 April 2015 | UPDATED: 16:00 EST, 23 April 2015

Eye of the Beholder by Laura J Snyder (Head of Zeus, £25)

The behaviour of Dutch natural scientist Antoni van Leeuwenhoek was nothing if not eccentric. In 1677, at the age of 41, he embarked on an extraordinarily gruesome experiment, using his body as a guinea pig.

Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (pictured in a portrait ) used his body as a guinea pig in an experiment

Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (pictured in a portrait ) used his body as a guinea pig in an experiment


He took three lice, nestled them among the hairs of his calf, rolled up a tight stocking so that the insects were bound to his leg and then left the stocking on and did not bathe for six days.

On the seventh day, he removed the stocking and counted more than 80 eggs but no young lice. In the interests of empiricism, the stocking went back on for another three days. Finally, the stocking came off to reveal at least 25 lice running up and down his leg.

‘This spectacle of all the young lice filled me with such aversion to the stocking,’ he wrote, ‘that I threw it, along with all the lice in it, out the window.’

He rubbed down his legs with ice, then took up his pen to calculate the louse’s reproduction rate. He estimated that two pairs of lice could generate 10,000 young in only eight weeks.

While Leeuwenhoeck was thus engaged, another great Dutchman, Johannes Vermeer, was intent on his own more genteel studies in his house on the opposite side of Delft’s market square.

Draped in a black cloth, Vermeer spent hours peering into the box-like interior of a camera obscura, an ancestor of the photographic camera. This was a light-tight wooden chamber with a hole or lens on one side, which could be used to project an image of a scene on to a glass plate or wall. They had been used for party tricks and for viewing solar eclipses but were increasingly being employed by artists to render paintings more lifelike than ever.

The experiments of these two men are the subject of Laura J. Snyder’s new biography. She asks an intriguing question: could Vermeer and Leeuwenhoek, who were born in the same week, lived and worked their entire lives in an area not much larger than a football pitch, and who had friends in common, have exchanged ideas and inspired each other’s work?

This is much more than a joint biography. It is a portrait of an age of insatiable intellectual curiosity.

The 17th century gave us an inventory of instruments which far extended man’s understanding of the world: accurate thermometers and barometers, the air pump, the pendulum clock, improvements to the telescope, the refinement of the microscope. Leeuwenhoek’s mastery of lens-grinding saw him build a microscope capable of magnification up to 480 times.

Scientists and dilettanti assembled cabinets of curiosity filled with rare animal and shell specimens. Leeuwenhoek’s collection included the eye of a whale, pickled in brandy.

Anatomical theatres for the dissection of bodies were built in Padua, Bologna, Leiden, Delft and Amsterdam. According to one chronicler, sumptuously dressed ladies would attend dissections of the bodies of executed criminals and then go straight to that night’s ball.

Snyder moves effortlessly not just between Vermeer’s studio and Leeuwenhoek’s laboratory, but all over Europe, from the universities of Italy, to the halls of the Royal Society in London, then the world’s pre-eminent scientific institution. Leeuwenhoeck wrote about 300 letters to the Royal Society, charting 50 years of experiments. He addressed them as ‘curious gentlemen dabblers’.

One of his great discoveries was the observation of thousands of swimming creatures, which he called animaculae or little animals, in murky water. He estimated there could be more than eight million of them in a single drop. Later generations would recognise them as bacteria.

He was also the first scientist to observe the existence and movement of sperm. No one had yet seen the human sperm or the egg or understood their part in reproduction.

Leeuwenhoek politely wrote to the President of the Royal Society: ‘What I investigate is only what, without sinfully defiling myself, remains as a residue of conjugal coitus.’

One feels a certain amount of sympathy for his wife, Cornelia. What with the lice and the post-conjugal microscope experiments, she must have been a very patient woman.

The great pleasure of this book is how Snyder makes the science clear to the layman. I have a degree in history of art and only one measly science GCSE in biology. Yet I was left more eager to peer down the lens at one of Leeuwenhoek’s slides, than to stand before even the most pellucid of Vermeer’s exquisite paintings.

Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/books/article-3052742/A-quick-autopsy-love-ball-eccentric-behaviour-Dutch-natural-scientist-Antoni-van-Leeuwenhoek.html#ixzz3YGkWoXSg

“Revelatory” — Philip Ball, Nature

Science writer Philip Ball wrote a lovely essay for Nature connecting Eye of the Beholder with Galileo’s Telescope, another new book having to do with the use of optical instruments in the 17th century.  Ball writes “Snyder beautifully evokes the ambience of late-seventeenth-century Delft. . . . She is revelatory about Vermeer’s aims and methods, helping to explain what is so mesmeric about his work.”

I’m a big fan of Philip Ball’s writings, so his praise of my book is a real thrill.