Scotland’s Quiet Revolutions – One Nation with Sovereign Achievements… and a Pure Dead Brilliant Future!

A photograph of the countryside north of Glasgow - sheep grazing. Image: NaturPhilosophieScotland’s Quiet Revolutions

It seems quiet at first, and even dull.  Not much happening…  Dreich, as one might say!  Sad.  Grim.  Bleak.  Not much to do…  Not much to see here…  Just sheep…  But wait!!  Look closer!  Is that Dolly in this field?  Now, that’s interesting!  Oh, Aye, we’re in Scotland!  It changes EVERYTHING… 

Scotland is an ancient nation.  Internationally renowned for the ingenuity and creativity of her people, the eerie breath-taking beauty of her land and the utter brilliance of her scientists, engineers and scholars, Scotland is home to many scientific revolutions and innovations.  ‘Made in Scotland’ quiet revolutions, we simply wouldn’t consider being without nowadays.

Even prior to the Industrial Revolution, Scots have been at the forefront of innovation and discovery across a wide range of fields.  The most famous exports of Scottish ingenuity include the steam engine of James Watt (1736-1819) – an improvement on that of English inventor Thomas Newcomen, the bicycle debatably, macadamisation of roads from engineer John Loudon McAdam (1756-1836), the telephone invented by Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922) and the television by John Logie Baird (1888-1946).  Not to mention the now world-famous Tunnock’s Tea Cake!

But there is so much more you may not have considered before.  What exactly is the extent of Scottish ingenuity and which of these quiet revolutions are the most significant?


From Mathematics and Astronomical Sky Exploration

Although you may not think much of logarithms in your everyday life, you will no doubt be familiar with the decimal pointWe owe the popularity of these scientific utensils to our own John Napier (1550–1617).

William Playfair’s first statistical line charts, bar charts, and pie charts in 1786 and 1801, are a scientific milestone in statistical graphics and data visualization.

An astronomy photograph showing IC434 & B33 - Horsehead Nebula Close-up with NGC-2023.

All science starts with precise observation and often revolutionary instrumentation, and the Gregorian telescope was invented by James Gregory in the 17th century – his design pre-dated the first practical reflecting telescope built by Newton in 1668.


Astronomical discoveries of great significance were to follow in later centuries:

  • The discovery of Proxima Centauri, the closest known star to the Sun, by Robert Innes (1861-1933)
  • One of the earliest measurements of distance to Alpha Centauri star system, the closest such system outside of the Solar System, by Thomas Henderson (1798-1844)
  • The discovery of Centaurus A, a well–known starburst galaxy in the constellation of Centaurus, by James Dunlop (1793-1848)
  • The discovery of the Horsehead Nebula in the constellation of Orion, by Williamina Fleming (1857-1911)


Far from being quiet, it is all…


Bubbling under the Surface

Joseph Black (1728-1799) gave us the concepts of Latent Heat and Heat Capacity.  Joseph Black also discovered the properties of Carbon dioxide CO2.

Sir John Leslie (1766-1832) gave us scientific instruments:A photograph showing an ancient differential air thermometer instrument.

  • the pyroscope measures the intensity of heat radiating from a fire, or the cooling influence of bodies.  It is a differential thermometer, having one bulb coated with gold or silver leaf.  Essentially, a pyroscope is a pyrometer or a thermometer designed to measure high temperatures, which uses the colour of the light emitted by a hot object;
  • the atmometer or evaporimeter measures the rate of water evaporation from a wet surface into the atmosphere;
  • the aethrioscope (1818) measures the chilling effect of a clear sky.  It consists of a metallic cup standing upon a tall hollow pedestal, with a differential thermometer placed so that one of its bulbs is in the focus of the paraboloid formed by the cavity of the cup.  The interior of the cup is highly polished and is kept covered by a plate of metal, being opened when an observation is made.  The second bulb is always screened from the sky and so is not affected by the radiative effect of the clear sky, the action of which is concentrated upon the first bulb.  The contraction of the air in the second bulb by its sudden exposure to a clear sky causes the liquid in the stem to rise.


Thomas Graham (1805-1869) gave us Colloid Chemistry.  Colloid solutions can be used in intravenous therapy for fluid replacement.

James Young (1811-1883) gave us the world’s first oil refinery and a process of extracting paraffin from coal, laying the foundations for the Modern Oil Industry.

Alexander Crum Brown (1838-1922) devised the diagrammatic system of representing chemical bonds.

Sir William Ramsay (1852-1916) is credited for his discovery of the noble gaseshelium (He), neon (Ne), argon (Ar), krypton (Kr), xenon (Xe), and the radioactive radon (Rn).


Scaling Mountains for a New Science

A photograph of Schiehallion and a diagram showing the physical forces at work in the experiment.
Schiehallion, Scotland and Schiehallion Force Diagram

The arithmetic mean density of the Earth was determined experimentally by English astronomer Nevil Maskelyne at the top of the Scottish mountain of Schiehallion, Perthshire, in the summer of 1774.

The Schiehallion experiment was funded by a grant from the Royal Society and involved measuring the tiny deflection of a pendulum due to the gravitational attraction of a nearby mountain.

To James Hutton (1726-1797), we owe the beginnings of a completely new understanding of the Earth’s dynamics: the foundations of Modern Geology.  The theory of Uniformitarianism (1788) suddenly changed the conception of our relationship with the natural environment.

Through observation and carefully reasoned geological arguments, James Hutton came to believe that the Earth was perpetually being formed.  Hutton recognised that the history of the Earth could be determined by understanding how processes such as erosion and sedimentation work in the present day.

An annotated photograph showing the geology of Siccar Point in Scotland.
James Hutton’s classic section at Siccar Point, Scotland, showing the “unconformity” between steeply dipping Silurian strata and the overlying Devonian.

Hutton observed the angular unconformity at Siccar Point in Scotland, which led him to the understanding of the immensity of geologic time.  For the first time, Earth history was viewed as “no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.

Suddenly, it appeared obvious that the Earth was not just older than a mere 6,000 years old, as retold in King James Bible.  But much MUCH older!  A fundamental principle of Geology was born that the geologic time or deep time takes millions of years.

In 1842, we received ever more practical wisdom about the Earth dynamical systems, thanks to the seismometer invented by James David Forbes (1809-1868).


To Distinguished Scottish Physicists and Revolutionary Technologists… 

The discovery of the Wave of Translation  by John Scott Russell (1808-1882) led to the modern general theory of solitons –  a self-reinforcing solitary wave packet or pulse that maintains its shape while it travels at constant speed.

William Thomson, Lord Kelvin (1824-1907) famously postulated the absolute zero of temperature – the lower limit on the thermodynamic temperature scale, a state at which the enthalpy and entropy of a cooled ideal gas reaches its minimum value, taken as 0.  And of course, Kelvin gave us the Kelvin unit of temperature.  The absolute zero is taken as −273.15° on the Celsius scale (International System of Units).

A black and white photograph showing a young James Clerk Maxwell.
James Clerk Maxwell as a young man.

James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) is famous for the Theory of Electromagnetism, which describes the relationship between electricity and magnetism in mathematical terms.  It is one of the fundamental forces, just like gravity, nuclear energy and beta-decay in particles.  It affects matter of all sizes, from sub-atomic particles to planets.  Electromagnetism provides the underlying principles of Radio.

We also owe him the discovery of the composition of Saturn’s Rings (1859).  At the time, astronomers generally thought the rings were solid.  Maxwell determined that the rings of Saturn were composed of numerous and small particles, all independently orbiting around the planet.  The Maxwell Ringlet and Maxwell Gap were named in his honour.

The Maxwell-Boltzmann Distribution (1860) remains the physical basis of the kinetic theory of gases, that speeds of molecules in a gas will change at different temperatures. The original theory was first hypothesised by Maxwell and confirmed later by Austrian Ludwig Boltzmann.

The incandescent light bulb was invented by James Bowman Lindsay (1799-1862).  And to make sure we see the stars of the show, Thomas Drummond (1797-1840) brightened up the stage with Limelights


Under the Limelight

The adhesive Postage Stamp and the postmark were both invented by James Chalmers (1782-1853).

Henry Faulds (1843-1930) pioneered Criminal Fingerprinting.

We owe the first cloud chamber recording of Atoms to Charles Thomson Rees Wilson (1869-1959).

Fast forward a few decades and we got…

The Automated Teller machine and Personal Identification Number (PIN) system by James Goodfellow (born in 1937).

A photograph showing Dolly the sheep and Bonny.
Dolly and Bonny

The discovery of Catacol Whitebeam (Sorbus pseudomeinichii) – a rare tree endemic and unique to the Isle of Arran in south west Scotland – by the Scottish Natural Heritage and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh in the 1990s.  The trees were confirmed as a new distinct species by DNA testing.

Dolly the Sheep born at the Roslin Institute research centre in Stirling in 1996.  She was the first Cloned Mammal to make it to History books.

Recently, Scotland celebrated Radar pioneer Robert Watson-Watts (1892-1973).


A graphical representation of the Atlas Experiment. Higgs and the Boson.Last century was graced with another potentially all-out revolution in the field of Physics with the first theory of the Higgs Boson by Scottish particle-physics theorist Peter Higgs, at the University of Edinburgh (1964).  And the actual discovery of the Higgs particle was confirmed by experiment at the LHC last year.

Also last year, a team of scientists at St. Andrews University succeeded in creating the world’s first functioning Tractor Beam that pulls objects on a microscopic level.  Not quite yet on a “Star Trek”-scale, but slowly getting there…


Medicine and Therapy – More of Scotland’s Quiet Revolutions

Robert Brown (1773-1858) was the first to identify the Nucleus in living cellsJames Braid (1795-1860) is the father of Hypnotherapy, with the discovery of hypnotism in 1841.

Sir James Young Simpson (1811-1870) pioneered the use of Surgical Anaesthesia with Chloroform.

In 1880, there was the discovery of Staphylococcus by Sir Alexander Ogston (1844-1929).

Alexander Wood (1817-1884) invented the Hypodermic Syringe.

From Sir David Bruce (1855-1931) who identified the cause of Brucellosis – a highly contagious fever caused by the ingestion of unpasteurised milk or undercooked meat from infected animals – to Sir William Boog Leishman (1865-1926) who discovered the Vaccine for Typhoid fever.

Sir Patrick Manson (1844-1922) is the father of Tropical Medicine.  He was the first president of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene in 1907.  Sir Ronald Ross (1857-1932) identified the mosquito as the carrier of Malaria.  He received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1902.

John J.R. Macleod (1876-1935) discovered Insulin along with others.  The discovery led him to being awarded the 1923 Nobel prize in Medicine.

In the 1940s, Professor Thomas Gibson was the first medical doctor to understand the relationship between donor graft tissue and Host Tissue Rejection and tissue Transplantation using his work on aviation burns victims during World War II.

Without Alexander Fleming (1881-1955), where would many of us be without his discovery of penicillin and antibiotics?  His discovery changed the world of modern medicine by introducing the age of Antibiotics, and saving millions of people around the World.  Along with Florey and Chain, Fleming received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1945.

John Boyd Orr (1880-1971) did pioneering work on poverty and Nutrition, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1949.

A photograph showing the result of a pre-natal ecography (Ultra Sound Scan) at 12 weeks after conception.Ian Donald (1910-1987)  and colleagues at the Glasgow Royal Maternity Hospital (GRMH) worked on the development of the Ultrasound Scanner, which led to the first diagnostic applications of the technique in 1958.

Between 1974 and 1980, John Mallard and James Huchinson worked on the development of the MRI Body Scanner.

Sir James Whyte Black (1924-2010) developed propranolol, a Beta Blocker drug used for the treatment of heart disease for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1988.

In 2006, Ian Frazer discovered the Human Papillomavirus Vaccine – the second cancer preventing vaccine, and the world’s first vaccine designed to prevent a cancer.

And that’s not all, but the list is simply too long!!


#indyref – The Scottish Referendum on Independence

A photograph taken locally showing how Scottish Referendum polarized everyone in Glasgow, July 2014. Image: NaturPhilosophie
The Scottish Referendum polarised everyone in  Scotland (Glasgow, July 2014).

On 18th September 2014, Scotland is voting on the Scottish Independence Referendum for a chance to govern herself for the first time since 1707.  And the current political debate could not be more passionate.

Although to me, this isn’t about Bonnie Prince Charlie.  Sheesh!  The Auld Alliance: How often do I still have to sit through that History lecture from complete strangers?  This isn’t about Wallace – though they’ll never take away… OUR FREE-DOOOMMM! 

I’ll tell ye what this is about.  This is about people like Adam Ferguson ‘The Father of Modern Sociology’ with his work An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767) or Adam Smith who founded Modern Economics with his publication of The Wealth of Nations (1776).  Controversial Smith expounded how rational self-interest and competition can in fact lead to economic prosperity.

This is about quiet revolutionaries like James Clerk Maxwell and Fleming, Ross or Macleod or Higgs and…

A photograph showing the front page of the Daily Record. The caption reads: "Hear No Devo.. See No Devo.. Speak No Devo.."
Three blithe monkeys…

People make Scotland.

Surely, we’re clever enough to rule ourselves? Surely, we’re big enough to take responsibility?  We’re standing on the shoulders of giants here.  All those scientific and social quiet revolutionaries of Scotland basically invented the modern World!


Last month, we saw UKube-1 is way up there.  We already make Micro-Satellites.  How about we launch them up too with a brand new spaceport?

And what’s next?  Energy from water?  A cheaper alternative for producing Hydrogen about 30 times faster than traditional electrolysis?

We live in such exciting times.  We could be giants…

A picture from the American show "The Simpsons" - Groundskeeper Willie on Scottish Independence: "Aye or Die!"
Even The Simpsons.

Scotland has ALWAYS been a HUGELY talented nation.  So nae worries there.  Here’s to our future achievements!

It’s time for Scotland’s next quiet revolution…