Reading List #003: A Garden Of Stars

Below are some of the interesting articles that I came across while writing my monthly column The Compass Chronicles Vol. 5 for The Hindu BusinessLine. Here are Volume 4, Volume 3, Volume 2 and Volume 1.


  1.  The Fall Of Shergotty (pdf), by Kevin Kinchka
  2. Mystery of the meteorite in Bihar’s opium fields, by Amitava Ghosh
  3. A survey of Bengali writings in science and technology (1800-1950) by various authors. 
  4. Introduction of Modern Astronomy In India during 18-19 centuries, (pdf) by S.M. Razaullah Ansari
  5. The Growth of modern astronomy In India, R.K. Kochhar
  6. Modern Astronomy in Indo-Persian Sources, by S.M. Razaullah Ansari
  7. Transit Of Mercury, 1651: Earliest telescopic observation in India by R. K. Kochhar 
  8. The Philosopher Burmese Prince & the Air Pump, by Jonathan Saha

Clockwork To Chaos: an online workshop (19 July-19 Oct 2014)



This manuscript page from 1665 shows a 23-year old Isaac Newton calculating the area under a hyperbola ( the curve drawn on the top left of the page).

He calculates no less than 55 decimal places, meticulously adding values from each term of an infinite series. The series emerges…


We close pollinator week with this animated tribute to the bees, bugs, birds, bats, and others who make life a little sweeter.
Original from Maria Sibylla Merian’s Raupen wunderbare Verwandelung und sonderbare Blumennahrung , 1730


We close pollinator week with this animated tribute to the bees, bugs, birds, bats, and others who make life a little sweeter.

Original from Maria Sibylla Merian’s Raupen wunderbare Verwandelung und sonderbare Blumennahrung , 1730

(via scientificillustration)

[Lecture] Secrets of the 3rd Dimension


In this workshop, Compasswallah will use 3D-printing technology to showcase cosmic visions of solid geometry from the 16th century in Germany.

Artists, philosophers and mathematicians have studied the beauty of the five Platonic solids for thousands of years. The astronomer Johannes Kepler proposed in his 1592 book that these shapes were embedded into the very structure of the universe. A wide variety of such structures - known as polyhedra were subsequently discovered - and used as models to explain atoms, crystals, viruses, radiolaria, or simply as ornamental motifs.

Even before Kepler, artists and goldsmiths such as Wenzel Jamnitzer in Nuremberg had begun to use Platonic geometry in their designs. Most of these designs remained imaginary for centuries, but today we can use modelling software like AutoCad or Solidworks to bring them into reality with 3D printers. Maker’s Asylum is a community workshop in Bandra (Mumbai), dedicated to spreading technical know-how around this technology.

The lecture will outline a history of 3-dimensional geometry and its role in biology, physics and chemistry. Alongside, the audience will see a live demo of a solid object being printed out by the machine.

Registration: There is a minimum donation of INR 400, to be paid on arrival. Seats will be limited to first 20 people who register online.

Time: Wednesday June 25, 6-8pm

Links: ,

Venue: Maker’s Asylum, Rizvi Palace Building, Next to Mamma Mia’s Pizza, Opp Yoko’s Sizzlers, Chinchpokli Road, Off Hill Road, Bandra West, MUMBAI 400050, MH, INDIA

Contact: Vaibhav: +91 7710991000 or Rohit: +91 97847 09366

About the speaker: The term Compasswallah is 19th century colonial slang for British surveyors roaming the Indian countryside with telescopes and sextants. It is also the assumed identity of Rohit Gupta, an artist, writer and historian of mathematics and science. Gupta’s corpus of work from 2000-2014 includes a published collection of science-fiction, comics, a variety of essays, innovations in new media art and technology, lectures, film and workshops. ( He tweets as @fadesingh )


Carnivalesque Vol. 102: A Midsummer Dream


Carnivalesque is an interdisciplinary blog carnival dedicated to pre-modern history upto the year 1800 CE. Compasswallah is proud to host the 102nd edition putting the history of science in focus, with an eye turned to the farthest fringes of human art & culture

Perhaps the most famous figure in pre-modern western literature, William Shakespeare “was born just twenty-one years after Copernicus’ De revolutionibus was published and lived through the period in which Kepler and Galileo, among others, made the heliocentric hypothesis..”. This correspondence has inspired a book on Shakespearean science by Dan Falk, which is examined closely for historical accuracy by The Renaissance Mathematicus. The bard’s 450th birth anniversary also marks the release of a book by two antiquarian booksellers who claim to be in possession of a dictionary Shakespeare often consulted. 

At the H-word Rebekah Higgitt looks at another famous literary persona, of the marooned sailor Robinson Crusoe, explicating that it was a hoax: ”While the book is seen today as an important precursor to the novel, as part of a new genre of realistic fiction, it was designed, at least in part, to confuse and to question. Robinson Crusoe was its purported author, not its title.” The theme of nautical adventures is continued by Benjamin Breen at The Appendix in “A Pirate Surgeon in Panama" describing a curious encounter of European medical thought with that of the natives circa 1670:

But if [Lionel] Wafer is far from the only seventeenth-century European to leave a report of his adoption into an Indian tribe, there are aspects of his story that are virtually unique. As we’ve seen, he practiced a form of hybrid Kuna-European medicine.

The untimely death of two negro crewmen aboard Captain Cook's  circumnavigation of the globe in 1769 are the subject of Richard Conniff's short note at Strange Behaviors. And Michiel van Groesen looks into the iconography of Columbus’s 1592 landing in Americas. 


Although sea voyages were rendered less dangerous by maps, cartography has always had deeper implications than just to navigation, such as psychogeographical diagrams of belief or cosmology. David Bressan outlines a concise history of geological maps, in a series of four posts

Following a bunch of recent open-access initiatives, the New York public Library has released thousands of historical maps online. Following close on its heels is the Leiden Library with 12,000 Dutch colonial maps from Indonesia, Antilles & Surinam. 

A Memorial & Miscellany

The ensemble of 34 posts remembering the passing of art historian Hasan Niyazi are a rich memory of the art historian himself, and also the subjects touched upon by him. In this context Daydream Tourist writes on the painting technique of sfumato and its science

Sfumato, which come from the Italian word for smoke, is the effect of creating transitions from light to dark without any discernible lines.  An invention of the Renaissance, it is a technique most closely associated with its champion Leonardo da Vinci.

In Luca, Leonardo, Albrecht and the search for the third dimension, Thony Christie carves a circuitous route in the history of renaissance mathematics and finally connects it to Hasan Niyazi’s favorite painter, Raphael. 

Two experiments in the digital domain worth mentioning are Wilfried Hou Je Bek’s comparative recipes of 16th versus 20th century food, and  B4XVI, where hip hop meets the middle ages. Also worth reading is the latest in a continuing series of discussions around the reboot of a TV series called Cosmos, in which they talk about Kepler and the age of the Earth

Finally, the world’s oldest decimal multiplication tables were found in a market in Hong Kong, and an archaeological trail of grains has pushed back the period of Silk Road interactions by 2000 years.   

[ Image sources: Top> unidentified image from British Library Or. 5259 f29 Middle > Ebstorf Mappa Mundi ] 

The Compass Chronicles Vol. I: Tales of Attraction

(This is the annotated version of my new column for The Hindu Business Line’s magazine BLink, published on April 4, 2014. The image is a depiction of the Konark Sun temple from James Fergusson’s 1847 text Ancient Architecture in Hindoostan. 

That the Sun Temple of Konark once contained a giant lodestone magnet, which held the entire edifice together by its force — is a story often told. And in the telling, this tale becomes taller, whence idols in the sanctum sanctorum begin to levitate, and the temple’s magnetic field is said to disorient the mariner’s compass on any ship passing in the Bay of Bengal. Or imagine, the holy magnet pulling out all the iron nails of a Chinese wooden ship causing it to fall apart. Some have even tried to explain the infamous Indian rope trick using various magnetic contrivances.

Another tall story, both incredible and uncertain, attributed to an American general named Benjamin Alvord in a letter to the poet Longfellow (circa 1842), is about a magnetic plant: “There has been discovered in the forests of India a strange plant (philotacea electrica) which possesses, to a very high degree, astonishing magnetic power. The hand which breaks a leaf from it receives immediately a shock equal to that which is produced by the conductor of an induction coil. At a distance of six metres a magnetic needle is affected by it, and it will be quite deranged if brought near. The energy of this singular influence varies with the hours of the day. All powerful about two o’clock in the afternoon, it is absolutely annulled during the night. At times of storm its intensity augments to striking proportions. While it rains the plant seems to succumb: it bends its head during a thunder-shower and remains without force or virtue even if one should shelter it with an umbrella. No shock is felt at that time in breaking the leaves, and the needle is unaffected by it. One never by any chance sees a bird or insect alight on this electric plant; an instinct seems to warn them that in so doing they would find sudden death. It is also important that where it grows none of the magnetic metals are found, neither iron, nor cobalt, nor nickel — an undeniable proof that the electric force belongs exclusively to the plant. Light and heat, phosphorescence, magnetism, electricity, how many mysteries and botanical problems does this wondrous Indian plant conceal within its leaf and flower!”

Apart from a few scattered references, the history of magnetism in India prior to the British Raj is poorly documented, much to the chagrin of science historians. That Indian sailors were already using the magnetic compass had been noted by Vasco Da Gama (circa 1497). A few decades later, while sailing near Goa and Bombay, the Portuguese naval officer João de Castro discovered magnetic declinations in his compass caused by nearby ferrous rocks. Even Sawai Jai Singh II, the astronomer-king of Jaipur — although his artistic sundials are singular — seems to have had little interest in magnetism.

The first major character in magnetism from India appears to be Jagadish Chandra Bose in the late 19th century, by whose time the relationship between electricity and magnetism had been firmly established. And for some reason Bose began to investigate the electrical and magnetic signals in plants through his invention, the magnetic crescograph. There is no public record, but one wonders whether Bose knew of that mysterious Indian plant mentioned by Alvord, the philotacea electrica. His early biographer Philip Geddes does mention a similar American “compass plant” (silphium laciniatum) in the book The Life & Work Of Sir Jagadis C Bose (1920).

More importantly, Geddes describes Bose’s spectacular experiments with radio waves: “Bose himself had as early as 1895, in a public lecture in Calcutta, demonstrated the ability of electric rays to travel from the lecture-room, and through an intervening room and passage, to a third room 75 feet away from the radiator, thus passing through three solid walls on the way, as well as the body of the chairman (who happened to be the Lieutenant-Governor). The receiver at this distance still had energy enough to make a contact, which set a bell ringing, discharged a pistol, and exploded a miniature mine.”

This ability to transmit signals through space would soon evolve with better engineering into sophisticated radar systems in the build-up to World War II, and radar — in as much as it was being used for the purpose of sea and air navigation, was really an advanced avatar of the magnetic compass. Both the radio and the compass were for Bose, ways of seeing “invisible light”, they were his prosthetic Third Eye — for visible light and radio waves were different slices of the same electromagnetic spectrum.

Bose’s vision is both romantic and eloquent, he writes: “From amongst the innumerable octaves of light, there is only one octave, with power to excite the human eye. In reality, we stand, in the midst of a luminous ocean, almost blind! The little that we can see is nothing, compared to the vastness of that which we cannot. But it may be said that out of the very imperfection of his senses, man has been able, in science, to build for himself a raft of thought by which to make daring adventure on the great seas of the unknown.”

Further Reading

  1. The Life & Work Of Sir Jagadis C Bose (1920) by Geddes
  2. João de Castro, the Portuguese officer and scientist is notable in this regard:”..the comments made by João de Castro are the most important record of values of magnetic declination in the Atlantic and Indian oceans, in the sixteenth century, and useful for the study of terrestrial magnetism. He made 43 determination of magnetic declination through rigorous measurements of geomagnetic declination over the entire circum-Africa route. The instrument used by him was the Bussola de Variacão, also developed by Felipe Guillen a decade earlier in Seville. João de Castro undertook many observations and can in a way be considered as one of the discoverers of crustal magnetism. He discovered spatial variations of Declination in that Bay of Bombay (near Baçaim), which he attributed to the disturbing effects of underwater rock masses (this is near where the large basaltic and rather strongly magnetized Deccan traps outcrop). In the 1890s, G. Hellman, quoted by Chapman and Bartels (1940), considered Castro to be the most important representative of scientific maritime investigations of the time, and the method he tested was universally introduced on ships and was used until the end of the sixteenth century.
  3. On The Compass Plant by Benjamin Alvord
  4. Silphium Laciniatum, the compass plant: Wikipedia
  5. Gautam Pemmaraju asked if there were some ancient sources for magnetism and I found this from Magnetism In Medicine: A Handbook by Nowak & Andra: 

E. Morieu. Astronomy Plate for Charles Bouret’s Geographic Atlas. Mexico, Paris. 1878.


E. Morieu. Astronomy Plate for Charles Bouret’s Geographic Atlas. Mexico, Paris. 1878.

Giants’ Shoulders Vol. 68: A Leaf On The Wind


[ Giants’ Shoulders is a monthly round-up of the most interesting blogs and articles from the history of science. For previous editions, please see the archive.

Asian Odyssey

We begin this whirlwind circumnavigation of the world with a link between Charles Darwin and the Mughal empire, both of which shared - perhaps for different reasons, a passion for pigeons, which suggests that Darwin knew about Abu’l-Fazl’s chapter on the subject. In a similar vein, it is worth recalling Sawai Jai Singh ( the astronomer-king of Jaipur, who created the solar observatory ) and his European connections.

An ancient Gandhari manuscript is the subject of this expansive article on “how to decipher a 4000 year-old tax return”. Down south near the waters of Sri Lanka, archaeologists prepare to excavate the oldest known shipwreck in the Indian Ocean. Such long oceanic journeys, and the fighting of wars oversea depended heavily on techniques of food processing and preservation. 

Chemical preservation is also employed to archive biological specimens for centuries. The Asian origins of a rare elephant foetus purchased by none other than Carl Linnaeus are examined in this fascinating summary of a lecture by Anna Marie Roos. Sometimes nature creates time capsules of its own, buried not too deep beneath its skin. Suvrat Kher talks about the first dinosaur fossil discovered in India, in 1828 by Captain Sleeman of the Bengal Army. 

A highly suspect claim that spectacles, or reading eyeglasses - were invented in India is taken to the surgery table by The Renaissance Mathematicus.

Meanwhile, Jaipreet Virdi has revealed some beautiful photographs of Indian women studying medicine in the 19th century. Around the same period, the beginnings of physical astronomy in India (pdf) at the Kodaikanal observatory are essayed in the latest issue of Current Science. We also find  - in a history of the cafeteria at the Indian Institute of Science, a “link between masala dosas and war”.

Moving up to ancient China, Carla Nappi writes about the Qing Bodies project, “a long-term multi-media foray into considering various forms of scientific and medical writing in the Qing period from the perspective of a history of storytelling”; for example, consider this inventive translation of a Manchu recipe as drama. There is more on Chinese heritage in this post about The Year of the Horse which began on January 31. And who knew that the famous device known as the Yellow Emperor’s south-pointing chariot features in a Japanese fairy tale

As our caravan moves west, the review of a new book called “Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane” provides a nice summary of the history of sciences in the region. 

A single leaf from an Arabic version of Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica is noticed by bintbattuta, and starts floating on a trade wind towards the dark continent. 

The African Fold


The sunrise in your gray eyes speaks
the history of man with no words.
Silence spirals across the sky.
This nautiloid look from the inside.

An astronomer in the Namibian desert tells his story through an evocative poem.

Carla Klehm in The Appendix Journal narrates an expansive history of the Kalahari desert through the culture of glass beads. She writes: 

Glass beads help link the archaeologist to a time and a place beyond ancient texts and oral histories, when this part of Africa—thousands of miles from the Indian Ocean—traded with the Middle East, India, Indonesia, and China. This is a story about the tiny trails of history the beads have left us.

Drawings of Egyptian mummies and “negros preparing indigo” are found in a post about 17th century French apothecary Pierre Pomet’s treatise: A Compleat History of Drugs

Keeping in mind that jihadist rebels in Mali torched a large archive of scientific manuscripts, it is heartening to read about how some brave scholars smuggled a majority of them to safety in and out of Timbuktu.

Before stepping further, take a moment to see the many projects underway at the Endangered Archives project. 

Europe & Americas

Worth glancing at is a missive from Poland, about Stanisław Lubieniecki’s monumental Theatrum cometicum, a compendium of “all comets that have been mentioned in historical records that were available in the mid-seventeenth century and which appeared on the firmament in the period between the biblical flood and the year 1665 C.E.” 

Surely the comets must have been visiting the firmament long before the humans evolved enough to become astronomers, before the continents drifted apart from a primordial Pangea. 

Some 50 million years ago, Africa was pushed north in Europe creating a long mountain range. Andalucia was part of this.

A geologist looks at the history of Andalucia with a dizzying sense of the passage of time: 

Around 3000 years ago (1100BC) the Phoenicians reached Andalucia, founding the town of Cadiz. A culture that reached across the Mediterranean they were also involved in trade with the British Isles. Tin from Cornwall in England was smelted with Spanish copper and the resulting bronze traded on.

A very pleasant news this month came from the British Isles, where both the British Library and the Wellcome Trust have unloaded huge cargoes of scientific archives online for the public to use. The BL’s inventive software bot known as The Mechanical Curator is worthy of much analysis. What does the algorithmic analysis of digitized manuscripts mean for history studies? A post by Whitney Trettien on automatic layout analysis might illustrate some of that. 

Sadly, questions of gender-bias in the scientific world continue to cause much consternation

The history of alchemy has also been under a lot of scrutiny recently. No surprise that it is finally being recognized by the media as a proto-science, rather than pseudoscience. Especially notable is the lifelong involvement of Sir Isaac Newton, whose highly complex personality continues to inspire much debate.

From here we set sail across the Atlantic with the illustrious chemist Joseph Priestly, to meet Thomas Jefferson in America at the end of the 18th century. 

The voices from North America speak of a new book showcasing the history of globes, the silver teapot of Benjamin Franklin, Louis Pasteur’s studies on yeast and beer.

Lastly, a look at how the inhabitants of Marshall Islands used stick charts to map the waves

Hic Sunt Dracones

If we have missed certain regions of the globe, it is because I have not come across active scribes from that region on the internet. Some of them are inaccessible due to their native language, some due to the lack of intercultural bridges, and some mainly due to my own ignorance. I hope you will pardon any such omissions.  

However, a vibrant community of science historians are constantly feeding the river of information on Twitter, and you’ll never step into the same river twice. The tag they use is #histsci 

The host for the next edition of Giants’ Shoulders will be announced shortly by Thony Christie at The Renaissance Mathematicus, and if you’d like to host a future edition please drop him a line. Needless to say, but I am very grateful to Thony for giving me this opportunity. You can find me on twitter as @fadesingh

[ Header Image: anonymous painting, India c. 1850, Middle Image is a cartographic painting by artist Fernando Vicente


From The Walters Art Museum:
A single leaf from a dispersed manuscript of the Arabic version of De materia medica by Dioscorides (active ca. 65) that was copied in 621 AH/AD 1224 in Baghdad. Approximately 30 illustrations were removed from this parent manuscript that are now in public and private collections. The leaf depicts two doctors preparing medicine. A funnel is set on a tripod over a vessel. The two men preparing the medicinal draught stand on either side of the tripod beside two fruit trees.


From The Walters Art Museum:

A single leaf from a dispersed manuscript of the Arabic version of De materia medica by Dioscorides (active ca. 65) that was copied in 621 AH/AD 1224 in Baghdad. Approximately 30 illustrations were removed from this parent manuscript that are now in public and private collections. The leaf depicts two doctors preparing medicine. A funnel is set on a tripod over a vessel. The two men preparing the medicinal draught stand on either side of the tripod beside two fruit trees.

The Lost Dinosaur of Jabalpur

One of the many startling interactions in colonial science would have been between Darwin’s theory of evolution and Hindu mythology, which contains many depictions of mixed up species, such as Ganesha’s elephant head and four arms and the many zoomorphic avatars of Vishnu. I haven’t yet sought ( and thus found ) much material on that because biology hasn’t been a priority. Nonetheless, it was interesting to note that: 

The first dinosaur from the Indian subcontinent was discovered in the year 1828 by Captain W. H. Sleeman of the Bengal Army from the Lameta Formation near Jabalpur. The bones collected were passed on to a series of learned amateur palaeontologists that included Spilsbury to James Princep (1832) to Thomas Oldham (1862) to Hugh Falconer who identified them as reptilian bones (1868). Richard Lydekker studied these bones along with the bones collected by H.B Medlicot (1877) from the overlying horizons at Jabalpur and established a type species Titanosarus indicus - the first dinosaur to be describe from India. 

The name William H. Sleeman will be familiar to those who have encountered the notorious history of Thugee in colonial India. As a prominent official of the Raj and keen naturalist, he may even have had access or correspondence with Charles Darwin, whose monumental book the Origin of Species came out in 1859, decades after Sleeman’s discovery. However, that is difficult to say. 

The specimen Sleeman found has an interesting story of its own, since it was ”considered lost since 1877 after it was formally named as Titanosaurus Indicus by Richard Lydekker. The specimen represents a left caudal vertebrae and is shown in left lateral view.” (pictured below)

This tale is reminiscent of the writer Jorge Luis Borges in a sense, who loved recursive labyrinths of this sort. The bone was considered lost within its own archive, where it was supposed to be preserved.

It’s like a small collection of lost books inside the library of Alexandria, or a lost fossil inside the Smithsonian museum, or a lost file on your computer’s hard disk, waiting for a future archaeologist who specializes in unearthing a memory buried within memories. 


  1. Late Cretaceous Dinosaurs In India: Diversity, Habitat & Extinction by Suvrat Kher of Rapid Uplift
  2. Rambles & Recollections Of An Indian Official, by W.H. Sleeman
  3. Rediscovering the first dinosaur in India (pdf), by Geological Survey of India
  4. Missing dinosaur tail found in a cupboard, the Daily Mail 
  5. Treasure Trove of Dinosaur Eggs Found In India

[Note: Source of the image on top. Bone Wars lithograph of Stegosaurus remains: One of the many lithographs produced under the direction of Yale paleontologist O. C. Marsh during the infamous late-19th century Bone Wars.]