Mar 072018

Today is the birthday (1788) of Antoine César Becquerel, a French scientist who was a pioneer in the study of electric and luminescent phenomena. He was the father of the more noted physicist A. E. Becquerel and grandfather of the physicist Henri Becquerel. This latter fact raises an issue I am writing about in one of my latest books. Is being a physicist genetic? Johann Sebastian Bach came from 4 generations of musicians and had sons and one grandson who were noted musicians. Is being a musician genetic? You can see where I am going with this. Your environment growing up is going to play a major part in how you develop as an adult. This is not to say that your genetic makeup is irrelevant, but, rather, that we should not assume that “talent” is somehow hard wired just because we see it repeating generation after generation. Social factors, individual factors, and genetics all work together – always.

Becquerel was born in Châtillon-sur-Loing (today Châtillon-Coligny). After passing through the École polytechnique he became engineer-officer in 1808 and saw active service with the imperial troops in Spain from 1810 to 1812, and again in France in 1814. He then resigned from the army and devoted the rest of his life to scientific investigation. In 1820, following the work of René Just Haüy, he found that pressure can induce electricity in materials, attributing the effect to surface interactions (this is not piezoelectricity). In 1825 he invented a differential galvanometer for the accurate measurement of electrical resistance. In 1829 he invented a constant-current electrochemical cell, the forerunner of the Daniell cell. In 1839, working with his son, A. E. Becquerel, he discovered the photovoltaic effect on an electrode immersed in a conductive liquid.

His earliest work was mineralogical in character, but he soon turned his attention to the study of electricity and especially of electrochemistry. In 1837 he became a Fellow of the Royal Society, and received its Copley Medal for his various memoirs on electricity, and particularly for those on the production of metallic sulphurets and sulphur by electrolysis. He was the first to prepare metallic elements from their ores by this method. It was hoped that this would lead to increased knowledge of the recomposition of crystallized bodies, and the processes which may have been employed by nature in the production of such bodies in minerals.

In biochemistry he worked on animal heat regulation and at the phenomena accompanying the growth of plants, and he also devoted much time to meteorological questions and observations. He was a prolific writer, his books including Traité de l’électricité et du magnétisme (1834–1840), Traité de physique dans ses rapports avec la chimie (1842), Elements de électro-chimie (1843), Traité complet du magnétisme (1845), Elements de physique terrestre et de meteorologié (1847), and Des climats et de l’influence qu’exercent les sols boisés et non boisés (1853). He died in Paris, where from 1837 he had been professor of physics at the Museum d’Histoire Naturelle.

His name is one of the 72 names inscribed on the Eiffel Tower.

Loiret, where Becquerel was born, is the most important region of France for beetroots. French agronomist Olivier de Serre described beetroot in the year 1600: “It is a markedly red root, fairly big, the leaves of which are chard, and all of it good to eat once contrived in the kitchen: the very root is reposed midst the delicate meats, whereby upon cooking it begets a juice, not unlike sugar syrup, which it is splendid to behold for its vermillion color.”  The sandy soil of the Val de Loire is particularly suited to beetroot production, and Loiret beets are well known throughout France. Local growers either ship them to market as is, or process them in a number of different ways for consumption. Beetroot can be eaten raw, roast, or steamed/boiled. The tops are valuable as greens as well. I was rather iffy about beet growing up because they were invariably served only pickled to use in salad, and their red juice tends to get over everything (and is difficult to clean up). Once I discovered roasting beets, it was a different story.

To roast beetroots use roots that are about the size of a tennis ball. Wash off any dirt clinging to the skin, but do not damage the skin in any way. Snip off the end of the root and cut off the tops, in both cases leaving 1 inch or so intact. ­­There are all kinds of different ways to roast beetroots. Some people wrap them in foil, others dredge them with oil. I believe in absolute simplicity. Place the washed beets on a baking tray and place them in the middle of a preheated 400˚F/200˚C oven and bake for 40 to 45 minutes. Take them out and let them cool on a wire rack. When the beets are cool enough to handle you can rub off the skins with a dish cloth. When skinned they can be sliced or diced and used in any number of ways. They make a great salad with sliced cucumber and crumbled feta cheese, for example. Figs would go well in this salad also.



Jan 252018

Today is the birthday (1627) of Robert William Boyle FRS, an Anglo-Irish natural philosopher, chemist, physicist, and inventor. Boyle is regarded today as one of the founders of modern chemistry, and one of the pioneers of modern experimental scientific method, even though, like his contemporary, Isaac Newton, he was an alchemist also. He is best known for Boyle’s law, which describes the inversely proportional relationship between the absolute pressure and the volume of a gas, if the temperature is kept constant within a closed system. Among his publications, The Sceptical Chymist is seen as a cornerstone book in the field of chemistry. He was a devout and pious Anglican and is noted for his writings in theology.

Boyle was born at Lismore Castle, in County Waterford, Ireland, the seventh son and fourteenth child of the 1st Earl of Cork (‘the Great Earl of Cork’) and Catherine Fenton. Lord Cork, then known simply as Richard Boyle, had arrived in Dublin from England in 1588 during the Tudor plantations of Ireland and obtained an appointment as a deputy escheator. He had amassed enormous wealth and landholdings by the time Robert was born, and had been created Earl of Cork in October 1620. Catherine Fenton, Countess of Cork, was the daughter of Sir Geoffrey Fenton, the former Secretary of State for Ireland, who was born in Dublin in 1539, and Alice Weston, the daughter of Robert Weston, who was born in Lismore in 1541.

As a child, Boyle was fostered out to a local family, as were his elder brothers. Boyle received private tutoring in Latin, Greek, and French and when he was 8 years old, following the death of his mother, he was sent to Eton College in England. His father’s friend, Sir Henry Wotton, was then the provost of the college. During this time, his father hired a private tutor, Robert Carew, who had knowledge of Irish, to act as private tutor to his sons in Eton. Boyle’s first language was Irish. After spending over three years at Eton, Boyle travelled abroad with a French tutor. They visited Italy in 1641 and remained in Florence during the winter of that year studying the “paradoxes of the great star-gazer,” Galileo Galilei, who was elderly but still living in 1641.

Boyle returned to England from continental Europe in mid-1644 with a keen interest in scientific research. His father had died the previous year and had left him the manor of Stalbridge in Dorset as well as substantial estates in County Limerick in Ireland. Boyle then made his residence at Stalbridge House, from 1644 to 1652, and conducted many experiments there. From that time, Boyle devoted his life to scientific research and soon took a prominent place in the band of enquirers, known as the “Invisible College”, who devoted themselves to the cultivation of the “new philosophy”. They met frequently in London, often at Gresham College, and some of the members also had meetings at Oxford.

Having made several visits to his Irish estates beginning in 1647, Boyle moved to Ireland in 1652 but became frustrated at his inability to make progress in his chemical work. In one letter, he described Ireland as “a barbarous country where chemical spirits were so misunderstood and chemical instruments so unprocurable that it was hard to have any Hermetic thoughts in it.” In 1654, Boyle left Ireland for Oxford to pursue his work more successfully. An inscription can be found on the wall of University College in the High Street in Oxford (now the location of the Shelley Memorial), marking the spot where Cross Hall stood until the early 19th century. It was here that Boyle rented rooms from the wealthy apothecary who owned the Hall.

Reading in 1657 of Otto von Guericke’s air pump, he set himself with the assistance of Robert Hooke to devise improvements in its construction, and with the result, the “machina Boyleana” or “Pneumatical Engine”, finished in 1659, he began a series of experiments on the properties of air. An account of Boyle’s work with the air pump was published in 1660 under the title New Experiments Physico-Mechanical, Touching the Spring of the Air, and its Effects. Among the critics of the views put forward in this book was a Jesuit, Francis Line (1595–1675), and it was while answering his objections that Boyle made his first mention of the law that the volume of a gas varies inversely to the pressure of the gas, which among English-speaking people is usually called Boyle’s Law after his name. The person who originally formulated the hypothesis was Henry Power in 1661. Boyle in 1662 included a reference to a paper written by Power, but mistakenly attributed it to Richard Towneley. In continental Europe the hypothesis is sometimes attributed to Edme Mariotte, although he did not publish it until 1676 and was likely aware of Boyle’s work at the time.

In 1663 the Invisible College became The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, and the charter of incorporation granted by Charles II of England named Boyle a member of the council. In 1680 he was elected president of the society, but declined the honor because of a scruple about oaths. In 1668 he left Oxford for London where he lived at the house of his elder sister Katherine Jones, Lady Ranelagh, in Pall Mall. His contemporaries widely acknowledged Katherine’s influence on his work, but later historiographies dropped her from the record. Theirs was “a lifelong intellectual partnership, where brother and sister shared medical remedies, promoted each other’s scientific ideas, and edited each other’s manuscripts.”

In 1669, Boyle’s health, never very strong, began to fail seriously and he gradually withdrew from his public engagements, ceasing his communications to the Royal Society, and advertising his desire to be excused from receiving guests, “unless upon occasions very extraordinary.” In the leisure thus gained he wished to “recruit his spirits, range his papers”, and prepare some important chemical investigations which he proposed to leave “as a kind of Hermetic legacy to the studious disciples of that art”, but of which he did not make known the nature. His health became still worse in 1691, and he died on 31 December that year, just a week after the death of the sister with whom he had lived for more than 20 years. He was buried in the churchyard of St Martin-in-the-Fields, his funeral sermon being preached by his friend Bishop Gilbert Burnet. In his will, Boyle endowed a series of lectures which came to be known as the Boyle Lectures.

Boyle’s great merit as a scientific investigator is that he carried out the principles which Francis Bacon espoused in the Novum Organum. Yet he would not avow himself a follower of Bacon, or indeed of any other teacher. On several occasions he mentions that to keep his judgment as unprepossessed as might be with any of the modern theories of philosophy, until he was “provided of experiments” to help him judge of them, he refrained from any study of the Atomical and the Cartesian systems, and even of the Novum Organum itself, though he admits to “transiently consulting” them about a few particulars. Nothing was more alien to his mental temperament than the spinning of hypotheses. He regarded the acquisition of knowledge as an end in itself. This, however, did not mean that he paid no attention to the practical application of science, but that pure knowledge was for Boyle a higher goal than applying scientific knowledge to utilitarian purposes.

Boyle was a committed alchemist, and, believing the transmutation of metals to be a possibility, he carried out experiments in the hope of achieving it. He was instrumental in obtaining the repeal, in 1689, of the statute of Henry IV against multiplying gold and silver. Despite all the important work Boyle accomplished in physics – the enunciation of Boyle’s law, the discovery of the part taken by air in the propagation of sound, and investigations on the expansive force of freezing water, on specific gravities and refractive powers, on crystals, on electricity, on color, on hydrostatics, etc. – chemistry was his favorite study. His first book, The Sceptical Chymist, published in 1661, criticized the “experiments whereby vulgar Spagyrists are wont to endeavour to evince their Salt, Sulphur and Mercury to be the true Principles of Things.” For him chemistry was the science of the composition of substances, not merely an adjunct to the arts of the alchemist or the physician. He endorsed the view that elements were the indivisible constituents of material bodies, and made the distinction between mixtures and compounds. He made considerable progress in the technique of detecting their ingredients, a process which he designated by the term “analysis”. He further supposed that the elements were ultimately composed of particles of various sorts and sizes, into which, however, they were not to be resolved in any known way. He studied the chemistry of combustion and of respiration, and conducted experiments in physiology, where, however, he was hampered by the “tenderness of his nature” which kept him from anatomical dissections, especially vivisections, though he knew them to be “most instructing”.

In addition to philosophy, Boyle devoted much time to theology, showing a very decided leaning to the practical side and an indifference to controversial polemics. At the Restoration of the king in 1660, he was favorably received at court and in 1665 would have received the provostship of Eton College had he agreed to take holy orders, but this he refused to do on the ground that his writings on religious subjects would have greater weight coming from a layman than a paid minister of the Church.

Moreover, Boyle incorporated his scientific interests into his theology, believing that natural philosophy could provide powerful evidence for the existence God. In works such as Disquisition about the Final Causes of Natural Things (1688), for instance, he criticized contemporary philosophers – such as René Descartes – who denied that the study of nature could reveal much about God. Instead, Boyle argued that natural philosophers could use the design apparently on display in some parts of nature to demonstrate God’s involvement with the world. He also attempted to tackle complex theological questions using methods derived from his scientific practices. In Some Physico-Theological Considerations about the Possibility of the Resurrection (1675), he used a chemical experiment known as the reduction to the pristine state as part of an attempt to demonstrate the physical possibility of the resurrection of the body. Throughout his career, Boyle tried to show that science could lend support to Christianity.

As a director of the East India Company he spent large sums in promoting the spread of Christianity in the East, contributing liberally to missionary societies and to the expenses of translating the Bible or portions of it into various languages. Boyle supported the policy that the Bible should be available in the vernacular language of the people. An Irish language version of the New Testament was published in 1602 but was rare in Boyle’s adult life. In 1680–85 Boyle personally financed the printing of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, in Irish. In this respect, Boyle’s attitude to the Irish language differed from the English Ascendancy class in Ireland at the time, which was generally hostile to the language and largely opposed the use of Irish (not only as a language of religious worship).

In his will, Boyle provided money for a series of lectures to defend the Christian religion against those he considered “notorious infidels, namely atheists, deists, pagans, Jews and Muslims”, with the provision that controversies among Christians were not to be mentioned.

Boyle’s Experiments and Considerations Touching Colours has a section in it on the use of syrup of violets as a chemical indicator. The syrup is normally violet, of course, but turns red when an acid is added and green in alkaline solutions. Modern, commercial syrups of violets are of no use for experimentation because they contain artificial coloring agents precisely so that they will not change color depending on what they are mixed with. You can, however, make your own syrup. I am a huge fan of violet as a flavoring, especially for the cream centers of dark chocolates. My sister sends me half a dozen from England every Christmas.

Here’s a 17th century MS recipe for syrup of violets. Click on the image to enlarge it.

Here’s a modern recipe that works just as well.

Syrup of Violets


50g sweet violets
150ml boiling water
300gm white caster sugar


Boil a 450ml bottle in clean water to sterilize it.

Remove all green matter, including stalks, from the violets, and place them in a clean glass or ceramic bowl. Pour the boiling water over the flowers, then cover the bowl with cling film or a tea towel, and let the violets infuse overnight.

When the violets have infused, place them with their water into the top of a double boiler. Add the sugar and stir well. Bring the water in the bottom of the double boiler to a slow boil, then place the top containing the violets, sugar, and water over the boiling water. Stir the violet mixture steadily until the sugar has completely dissolved.

When the sugar has dissolved remove the mixture from the heat, and strain it through muslin lining a funnel into the sterilized bottle. Cap the bottle and store in a cool place or the refrigerator.




Aug 312016


Today is the birthday (1821) of Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz a Prussian physician and physicist who made significant contributions to several widely varied areas of modern science. In physiology and psychology, he is known for his mathematics of the eye, theories of vision, ideas on the visual perception of space, color vision research, and on the sensation of tone, perception of sound, and empiricism. In physics, he is known for his theories on the conservation of energy, work in electrodynamics, chemical thermodynamics, and on a mechanical foundation of thermodynamics. As a philosopher, he is known for his philosophy of science, ideas on the relation between the laws of perception and the laws of nature, the science of aesthetics, and ideas on the civilizing power of science. Some of his ideas are a bit spaced out and are not widely supported, or even known, any more. But there’s no question that Helmholtz had a fertile mind.

Helmholtz’ father, Ferdinand, had been in the Prussian army fighting against Napoleon, but, despite an excellent university education he preferred to teach in a secondary school in Potsdam, which left the family struggling financially.  Ferdinand was an artistic man and under his influence Hermann grew up to have a strong love of music and painting, which he then put to use in his contemplation of the unity of a number of investigations, especially physics and aesthetics. It’s in this area that I most know his work.

Hermann attended Potsdam Gymnasium where his father taught philology and classical literature. His interests at school were mainly in physics and he would have liked to have studied that subject at university. But the financial position of the family, however, meant that he could not go to university unless he received a scholarship. Financial support of this kind was not available for physics so his father persuaded him to study medicine which was supported by the government.


In 1837 Helmholtz was awarded a government grant to enable him to study medicine at the Royal Friedrich-Wilhelm Institute of Medicine and Surgery in Berlin. He did not receive the money without strings attached, however, and he had to sign a document promising to work for ten years as a doctor in the Prussian army after graduating. In 1838 he began his studies in Berlin. Although he was officially studying at the Institute of Medicine and Surgery, being in Berlin he had the opportunity of attending courses at the University. He took this chance, attending lectures in chemistry and physiology.

Given Helmholtz’s contributions to mathematics later in his career it would be reasonable to have expected him to have taken mathematics courses at the University of Berlin at this time. However he did not, rather he studied mathematics on his own, reading works by Laplace, Biot and Daniel Bernoulli. He also read philosophy works at this time, particularly the works of Kant. His research career began in 1841 when he began work on his dissertation. He rejected the direction which physiology had been taking which had been based on “vital forces” which were not physical in nature. Helmholtz strongly argued for founding physiology completely on the principles of physics and chemistry, and ultimately this approach led to his contemporary fame.

Helmholtz graduated from the Medical Institute in Berlin in 1843 and was assigned to a military regiment at Potsdam, but spent all his spare time doing research. His work concentrated on showing that muscle force was derived from chemical and physical principles. If some “vital force” were present, he argued, then perpetual motion would become possible. In 1847 he published his ideas in his paper “Über die Erhaltung der Kraft” which laid down the mathematical principles behind the conservation of energy.


Helmholtz argued in favor of the conservation of energy using both philosophical and physical arguments. He based many ideas on earlier works by Sadi Carnot, Clapeyron, Joule and others. That philosophical arguments came right up front in this work was typical of all of Helmholtz’s contributions. He argued that physical scientists had to conduct experiments to find general law. In that way science

 … endeavours to ascertain the unknown causes of processes from their visible effects; it seeks to comprehend them according to the laws of causality. … Theoretical natural science must, therefore, if it is not to rest content with a partial view of the nature of things, take a position in harmony with the present conception of the nature of simple forces and the consequences of this conception. Its task will be completed when the reduction of phenomena to simple forces is completed, and when it can at the same time be proved that the reduction given is the only one possible which the phenomena will permit.

He then showed that the hypothesis that work could not be continually produced out of nothing inevitably led to the principle of the conservation of kinetic energy. This principle he then applied to a variety of different situations. He demonstrated that in various situations where energy appears to be lost, it is, in fact, converted into heat energy. This happens in collisions, expanding gases, muscle contraction, electrostatics, galvanic phenomena and electrodynamics. The paper was quickly viewed as an important contribution and played a major role in Helmholtz’ career. The following year he was released from his obligation to serve as an army doctor so that he could accept the vacant chair of physiology at Königsberg.


His career progressed rapidly in Königsberg. He published important work on physiological optics and physiological acoustics. He received great acclaim for his invention of the ophthalmoscope in 1851 and rapidly gained a strong international reputation.  In 1855 he was appointed to the vacant chair of anatomy and physiology in Bonn, but because his approach to physiology as a matter of physics and chemistry and not “magic,” he got a lot of complaints from traditionalist students, and wound up at Heidelberg University in 1858 where they promised to set up a new physiology institute for him.

Some of his most important work was carried out while he held this post in Heidelberg. He studied mathematical physics and acoustics producing a major study in 1862 which looked at musical theory and the perception of sound. In mathematical appendices he advocated the use of Fourier series. In 1843 Ohm had stated the fundamental principle of physiological acoustics, concerned with the way in which one hears combination tones. Helmholtz explained the origin of music on the basis of his fundamental physiological hypotheses. He formulated a resonance theory of hearing which provided a physiological explanation of Ohm’s principle. He also explained why you get a note when you blow across the neck of a bottle, and why the note changes depending on how much liquid is in the bottle. Technically this is called a Helmholtz resonator.


From around 1866 Helmholtz began to move away from physiology and move more towards physics. When the chair of physics in Berlin became vacant in 1870 he indicated his interest in the position and in 1871 he took up this post. He had begun to investigate the properties of non-Euclidean space around the time his interests were turning towards physics in 1867. This led Helmholtz to question the adequacy of Euclidean geometry to describe the physical world, and, in general, broadened his thinking into the realms of philosophy.

There’s more but I’ll stop. I’ve probably already caused a few glassy eyes. On the one hand, Helmholtz revolutionized many scientific fields because he was a true polymath at a time when scientific fields were becoming narrower and narrower in their focus. Many would do well to follow his lead, but this is virtually impossible in today’s highly professionalized and specialized world. Occasionally these days physicists stumble on ancient Chinese philosophy and the like, and you get a bit of playful synthesis. But it does not to amount to anything of any importance. A person of Helmholtz’ stature might do better nowadays, but with so much technical matter to cover this may be impossible. Pity. Helmholtz was driving down a path to show that the natural science of the physical would eventually explain EVERYTHING from the motion of objects to the aesthetic appreciation of color and sound. Good luck with that. The science of the 19th century is simply not up to the task; nor that of the 21st century in my oh so humble opinion. I believe we need a new paradigm, which I doubt will be forthcoming in my lifetime. I will give Helmholtz A++ for effort though (generous of me, I know).

Potsdam, Helmholtz’ birthplace, was the capital of Prussia, but ceded its central place to neighboring Berlin when Germany was unified in Helmholtz’ lifetime, although Potsdam remained the residence of the Kaisers until 1918. As with other manufactured nations, we can speak of German cuisine as a whole, which notion has some merit, but also blurs over regional distinctions. The fact is, though, that certain dishes are universal, and the potato, which was popularized by Frederick the Great of Prussia dominates to this day. So, I suggest German potato pancakes, Kartoffelpuffer, which are widespread in German cuisine. I’ve never used a recipe, but I’ll give you one for completeness. The main issue is that the potatoes are grated raw, so you need the right quantity of egg and flour to bind the potatoes together, otherwise they will fall apart when cooked. Trust me – I know this. In Prussia they are served as a side dish with meat or with applesauce as a sweet dish.




1 kg/2 lb potatoes, peeled and coarsely grated
1 onion, peeled and grated
2 large eggs, beaten
salt and pepper
2 tbsp flour
vegetable oil


Drain all excess moisture from the potatoes but do not squeeze them dry. This will ruin the taste.

Mix the potatoes, onion, and egg together in a bowl, and add salt and pepper to taste.  Add enough flour, a little at a time, to absorb any excess moisture in the potatoes.

Divide the mixture into 8 and shape each portion into flat, round patties. Place the patties individually on trays, and  let them rest in the refrigerator for at least 30-45 minutes.

Heat the oil in a frying pan over medium heat and cook the kartoffelpuffer in small batches, flipping once so that they are golden brown on both sides and cooked through. This part takes some practice. Don’t be tempted to cook them too quickly, or they will not cook all the way through.

May 112016


Today is the birthday (1918) of Richard Phillips Feynman, a U.S. theoretical physicist known for his work in the path integral formulation of quantum mechanics, the theory of quantum electrodynamics, and the physics of the superfluidity of supercooled liquid helium, as well as in particle physics for which he proposed the parton model. For his contributions to the development of quantum electrodynamics, Feynman, jointly with Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga, received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965. He developed a widely used pictorial representation scheme for the mathematical expressions governing the behavior of subatomic particles, which later became known as Feynman diagrams. During his lifetime, Feynman became one of the best-known scientists in the world. In a 1999 poll of 130 leading physicists worldwide by the British journal Physics World he was ranked as one of the ten greatest physicists of all time.

He assisted in the development of the atomic bomb during World War II and became known to a wide public in the 1980s as a member of the Rogers Commission, the panel that investigated the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. In addition to his work in theoretical physics, Feynman has been credited with pioneering the field of quantum computing, and introducing the concept of nanotechnology.

I don’t know how much of a household name Feynman is nowadays, but I know about him for several, mostly quirky, reasons. For one thing, I admire him for the importance he attached to teaching.


Feynman was born in Queens and attended Far Rockaway High School. Upon starting high school, Feynman was quickly promoted into a higher math class. An unspecified school-administered IQ test estimated his IQ at 123—high, but “merely respectable” according to biographer James Gleick. Don’t get me started on IQ tests.

When he turned 15, he taught himself trigonometry, advanced algebra, infinite series, analytic geometry, and both differential and integral calculus. In high school he was developing the mathematical intuition behind his Taylor series of mathematical operators. Before entering college, he was experimenting with and deriving mathematical topics such as the half-derivative using his own notation. In his last year in high school Feynman won the New York University Math Championship. The large difference between his score and those of his closest competitors shocked the judges.

He applied to Columbia University but was not accepted because of their quota for the number of Jews admitted. Instead, he attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1939 and in the same year was named a Putnam Fellow. He attained a perfect score on the graduate school entrance exams to Princeton University in mathematics and physics—an unprecedented feat—but did rather poorly on the history and English portions. Attendees at Feynman’s first seminar included Albert Einstein, Wolfgang Pauli, and John von Neumann. He received a Ph.D. from Princeton in 1942, his thesis, “The Principle of Least Action in Quantum Mechanics,” laid the groundwork for his future work in quantum mechanics for which he eventually shared the Nobel Prize.

The thing that’s always fascinated me about theoretical physics is that while the mathematics is well beyond most mortals, the ideas are not all that complicated. Feynman was one of a rare breed who understood the mathematics at a very deep level, yet he was able to explain his ideas to any educated person.  Furthermore, Feynman found teaching to be an important source of inspiration. If you watch The Big Bang Theory, you’ll get the impressions that “really smart guys” (i.e. theoretical physicists) are too lofty to teach. Some of them believe that, and others believe that teaching takes time from “important” research. Feynman believed that it was important to teach as part of the creative process.

Let me pause for a minute and dissect this idea. Einstein once said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” There’s the nub. To teach something well – anything – you need to understand it well. Just because you are a native speaker of English does not mean that you can teach English. Trust me on that. It takes years of wrestling with the mechanics of the language to be able to explain how it works – SIMPLY – to people who are trying to learn it. Any idiot can teach English from a textbook that someone else wrote; it’s another matter entirely to teach from what you yourself have explored and discovered.


Following the completion of his PhD, Feynman held an appointment at the University of Wisconsin–Madison as an assistant professor of physics. The appointment was spent on leave for his involvement in the Manhattan project (which he was not central to). In 1945, he received a letter from Dean Mark Ingraham of the College of Letters and Science requesting his return to UW to teach in the coming academic year. His appointment was not extended when he did not commit to return. In a talk given several years later at UW, Feynman said, “It’s great to be back at the only university that ever had the good sense to fire me.”

After the war, Feynman declined an offer from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, despite the presence there of such distinguished faculty members as Albert Einstein, Kurt Gödel and John von Neumann. Feynman instead went to Cornell University, where he taught theoretical physics from 1945 to 1950. During a temporary depression following the destruction of Hiroshima by the bomb produced by the Manhattan Project, he focused on complex physics problems, not for utility, but for self-satisfaction. One of these was analyzing the physics of a twirling dish as it is moving through the air. His work during this period, which used equations of rotation to express various spinning speeds, proved important to his Nobel Prize–winning work, yet because he felt burned out and had turned his attention to less immediately practical problems, he was surprised by the offers of professorships from other renowned universities.

Despite yet another offer from the Institute for Advanced Study, Feynman rejected the Institute on the grounds that there were no teaching duties: Feynman felt that students were a source of inspiration and teaching was a diversion during uncreative spells. Because of this, the Institute for Advanced Study and Princeton University jointly offered him a package whereby he could teach at the university and also be at the institute. Feynman instead accepted an offer from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech)—and as he says in his book Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman!—because a desire to live in a mild climate had firmly fixed itself in his mind while he was installing tire chains on his car in the middle of a snowstorm in Ithaca.


Feynman has been called the “Great Explainer.” He gained a reputation for taking great care when giving explanations to his students and for making it a moral duty to make the topic accessible. His guiding principle was that, if a topic could not be explained in a freshman lecture, he did not yet fully understand it. I love this quote:

Fall in love with some activity, and do it! Nobody ever figures out what life is all about, and it doesn’t matter. Explore the world. Nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough. Work as hard and as much as you want to on the things you like to do the best. Don’t think about what you want to be, but what you want to do. Keep up some kind of a minimum with other things so that society doesn’t stop you from doing anything at all.


His biographers record that late in life Feynman became obsessed with traveling to Tuva (nestled north of Mongolia), although he was unable to do so before he died. At that time, when Tuva was part of the Soviet Union, visas were hard to obtain, and travel arrangements were also very difficult (overland yak from Mongolia or a once-a-week flight on an 18-seater plane from Moscow). Apparently he had been interested in Tuva since boyhood when he collected stamps, and the oddly-shaped stamps from Tuva fascinated him. He looked up where it was (the middle of nowhere) and learned all he could about the place.

It is an amazing destination. I’ve wanted to go there for more than 30 years. That was a big incentive I had when I applied for a job in Inner Mongolia (and wound up with visa problems of my own).  Tuva is famous – in some circles – for throat singing: a way of producing several notes at the same time from a single voice, originally a shamanic practice.  This video is a starter for you.  You can look up plenty of astounding examples.  I used to play this stuff in ethnomusicology classes and the students could not believe it was a human voice – and a SINGLE one at that.

I’ll get there eventually.  In honor of Feynman I suggest trying out some Tuvan food. Tuvans used to be, and some are still, primarily nomadic herders although Russification has caused major changes. As such, their diet was rich in meat and dairy products similar to the grasslands of Mongolia.  Buuz are a well known staple found in both Tuva and Mongolia. They are meat-filled steamed dumplings that are ubiquitous throughout the Asian segments of the current Russian Federation.

rf7 rf6

You can find a ton of videos on how to make them if you need them. Otherwise the basics are as follows. Make a flour dough, much as you would to make pasta. Mix flour and water together to form an elastic, not moist, dough using your hands to mix them. Knead the dough for about 20 minutes until it is pliant and completely workable.  Break the kneaded dough into walnut-sized balls and roll them flat into circles.  Use a spoonful of your favored filling. The commonest, and most traditional, filling is chopped meat.  This can be mutton, goat, yak, or whatever, but it should be fatty. You don’t need to add anything else to the filling, but modern cooks sometimes add onions and spices. Hot chile pepper is also popular.

Shaping the dumplings is an art that takes long practice. The photo gives you the idea. Videos will give you others. The dumplings need to be able to sit flat in a steamer, so place the filling in the center of the dough circle and draw the dough up around it, leaving a hole exposing the meat at the top. Steam the buuz for about 20 minutes, or longer, and serve them hot with a dipping sauce of your choice. Street vendors keep the buuz in the steamer for long periods, and they are fine. Mayonnaise is a common sauce.  Tea is the normal accompaniment.

Dec 252015


Christmas Day (by the Julian calendar in use in England at the time), is the birthday (1642) of Sir Isaac Newton PRS, who is widely regarded as one of the most influential scientists of all time, and as a key figure in the 17th century scientific revolution. His book Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (“Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy”), first published in 1687, laid the foundations for classical mechanics. Newton made seminal contributions to optics, and he shares credit with Gottfried Leibniz for the development of calculus.

Newton’s Principia formulated the laws of motion and universal gravitation, which dominated scientists’ view of the physical universe for the next three centuries. By deriving Kepler’s laws of planetary motion from his mathematical description of gravity, and then using the same principles to account for the trajectories of comets, the tides, the precession of the equinoxes, and other phenomena, Newton removed the last doubts about the validity of the heliocentric model of the solar system. This work also demonstrated that the motion of objects on Earth and of celestial bodies could be described by the same principles. His prediction that Earth should be shaped as an oblate spheroid was later vindicated by the measurements of Maupertuis, La Condamine, and others, which helped convince most Continental European scientists of the superiority of Newtonian mechanics over the earlier system of Descartes.


Newton built the first practical reflecting telescope and developed a theory of color based on the observation that a prism decomposes white light into the many colors of the visible spectrum. He formulated an empirical law of cooling, studied the speed of sound, and introduced the notion of a Newtonian fluid. In addition to his work on calculus, as a mathematician Newton contributed to the study of power series, generalized the binomial theorem to non-integer exponents, developed a method for approximating the roots of a function, and classified most of the cubic plane curves.

Newton was a fellow of Trinity College and the second Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge. He was a devout but unorthodox Christian and, unusually for a member of the Cambridge faculty of the day, he refused to take holy orders in the Church of England, perhaps because he privately rejected the doctrine of the Trinity. He was a devout, but unorthodox, Christian. Beyond his work on the mathematical sciences, Newton dedicated much of his time to the study of biblical chronology and alchemy, but most of his work in those areas remained unpublished until long after his death. In his later life, Newton became president of the Royal Society. Newton served the British government as Warden and Master of the Royal Mint.


I am going to assume that you either are familiar with Newton’s work in physics and mathematics, or don’t want a lesson from me. Instead I’ll focus on a few lesser known aspects of his life and work. First , here are two well-known quotes that I think adequately display his humility:

If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.

I was like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

These are less well known:

We build too many walls and not enough bridges.

Genius is patience.

Plato is my friend; Aristotle is my friend, but my greatest friend is truth.

I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people.

We could use him around today. As many of my readers know, I do not use superlatives such as “best” in relation to the greats of the world or their works. But I certainly stand in absolute awe and wonder at what Newton accomplished. Here’s a few tidbits from his life.


Although born into an Anglican family, by his thirties Newton held a Christian faith that would not have been considered orthodox by contemporary Christianity, and, in consequence, he did not make his fundamental beliefs public. By 1672 he had started to record his theological researches in notebooks which he showed to no one and which have only recently been examined. They demonstrate an extensive knowledge of early church writings and show that in the conflict between Athanasius and Arius, which spawned the Nicene Creed, he took the side of Arius, the loser, who rejected the conventional view of the Trinity. Newton saw Christ as a divine mediator between God and humans, who was subordinate to the Father who created him. He wrote, “the great apostasy is trinitarianism.” Newton tried unsuccessfully to obtain one of the two fellowships that exempted the holder from the ordination requirement. At the last moment in 1675 he received a dispensation from the government that excused him and all future holders of the Lucasian chair from being ordained.

Newton was not a deist, in the conventional way, however. Rejecting trinitarianism did not mean rejecting Christianity. Although the laws of motion and universal gravitation became Newton’s best-known discoveries, he warned against using them to view the universe as a mere machine, as if akin to a great clock. He said, “Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done.”


Newton wrote works on Biblical textual criticism, most notably An Historical Account of Two Notable Corruptions of Scripture. He placed the crucifixion of Jesus Christ at 3 April, AD 33, which is now one of several dates accepted by some scholars. He believed in a rationally immanent world, but he rejected the hylozoism (matter is living) implicit in Leibniz and Baruch Spinoza. The ordered and dynamically informed universe could be understood, and must be understood, as directed by active reason. In his correspondence, Newton claimed that in writing the Principia “I had an eye upon such Principles as might work with considering men for the belief of a Deity”. He saw evidence of design in the system of the world: “Such a wonderful uniformity in the planetary system must be allowed the effect of choice”. But Newton insisted that divine intervention would eventually be required to reform the system, due to the slow growth of instabilities. For this, Leibniz lampooned him: “God Almighty wants to wind up his watch from time to time: otherwise it would cease to move. He had not, it seems, sufficient foresight to make it a perpetual motion machine.”

Newton and Robert Boyle’s approach to a mechanical philosophy was promoted by rationalist pamphleteers as a viable alternative to the pantheists and enthusiasts, and was accepted hesitantly by orthodox preachers as well as some dissidents. The clarity and simplicity of science was seen as a way to combat the emotional and metaphysical superlatives of both superstitious enthusiasm and the threat of atheism, and at the same time, the second wave of English deists used Newton’s discoveries to demonstrate the possibility of a “Natural Religion”.


In a manuscript Newton wrote in 1704, in which he describes his attempts to extract scientific information from the Bible, he estimated that the world would end no earlier than 2060. In predicting this he said, “This I mention not to assert when the time of the end shall be, but to put a stop to the rash conjectures of fanciful men who are frequently predicting the time of the end, and by doing so bring the sacred prophesies into discredit as often as their predictions fail.”

It is now just beginning to be recognized in the wider intellectual world that Newton spent over 30 years studying and writing about alchemy. John Maynard Keynes, who acquired many of Newton’s writings on alchemy, asserted that “Newton was not the first of the age of reason: He was the last of the magicians.” Newton’s interest in alchemy cannot be isolated from his contributions to science. In Newton’s day there was no clear distinction between alchemy and science. Had he not relied on the occult idea of action at a distance, across a vacuum, he might not have developed his theory of gravity. Newton’s writings suggest that one of the goals of his alchemy was the discovery of The Philosopher’s Stone (a material believed to turn base metals into gold), and perhaps to a lesser extent, the discovery of the highly coveted Elixir of Life. Some practices of alchemy were banned in England during Newton’s lifetime, due in part to unscrupulous practitioners who would often promise wealthy benefactors unrealistic results in an attempt to swindle them. The English Crown, also fearing the potential devaluation of gold, should The Philosopher’s Stone actually be discovered, made penalties for alchemy very severe, including execution.


The story of Newton and the apple has sometimes been debunked as legend, and often popularly altered to claim that the apple struck him on the head. In fact, Newton himself often told the story that he was inspired to formulate his theory of gravitation by watching the fall of an apple from a tree. Acquaintances of Newton (such as William Stukeley, whose manuscript account of 1752 has been made available by the Royal Society) do in fact confirm the incident. Stukeley recorded in his Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life a conversation with Newton in Kensington on 15 April 1726:

we went into the garden, & drank tea under the shade of some appletrees; only he, & my self. amidst other discourse, he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. “why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground,” thought he to himself; occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in a contemplative mood. “why should it not go sideways, or upwards? but constantly to the earths center? assuredly, the reason is, that the earth draws it. there must be a drawing power in matter. & the sum of the drawing power in the matter of the earth must be in the earths center, not in any side of the earth. therefore dos this apple fall perpendicularly, or toward the center. if matter thus draws matter; it must be in proportion of its quantity. therefore the apple draws the earth, as well as the earth draws the apple.

John Conduitt, Newton’s assistant at the Royal Mint and husband of Newton’s niece, also described the event when he wrote about Newton’s life:

In the year 1666 he retired again from Cambridge to his mother in Lincolnshire. Whilst he was pensively meandering in a garden it came into his thought that the power of gravity (which brought an apple from a tree to the ground) was not limited to a certain distance from earth, but that this power must extend much further than was usually thought. Why not as high as the Moon said he to himself & if so, that must influence her motion & perhaps retain her in her orbit, whereupon he fell a calculating what would be the effect of that supposition.

It is known from his notebooks that Newton was grappling in the late 1660s with the idea that terrestrial gravity extends, in an inverse-square proportion, to the Moon; however it took him two decades to develop the full-fledged theory. The question was not whether gravity existed, but whether it extended so far from Earth that it could also be the force holding the Moon to its orbit. Newton showed that if the force decreased as the inverse square of the distance, one could indeed calculate the Moon’s orbital period, and get good agreement. He guessed the same force was responsible for other orbital motions, and hence named it “universal gravitation”.


Various trees are claimed to be “the” apple tree which Newton describes. The King’s School, Grantham, claims that the tree was purchased by the school, uprooted and transported to the headmaster’s garden some years later. The staff of the [now] National Trust-owned Woolsthorpe Manor dispute this, and claim that a tree present in their gardens is the one described by Newton. A descendant of the original tree can be seen growing outside the main gate of Trinity College, Cambridge, below the room Newton lived in when he studied there. The National Fruit Collection at Brogdale can supply grafts from their tree, which appears identical to Flower of Kent, a coarse-fleshed cooking variety.


To honor Newton I’ve culled several apple recipes from 17th century cookbooks. The first, entitled “To fry Applepies” comes from A True Gentlewomans Delight, 1653. These are like fruit empanadas or empanaditas. You need to peel the apples and chop them very fine, otherwise they will not cook when you fry the pastries. You could parboil the apples in a little sugar syrup before filling the pastry if you wish.

To fry Applepies.

Take Apples and pare them, and chop them very small, beat in a little Cinnamon, a little Ginger, and some Sugar, a little Rosewater, take your paste, roul it thin, and make them up as big Pasties as you please, to hold a spoonful or a little lesse of your Apples; and so stir them with Butter not to hastily least they be burned.

Here’s apples in wine sauce and cream from Archimagirus Anglo-Gallicus; Or, Excellent & Approved Receipts and Experiments in Cookery, 1658. The herb and spice combinations are well worth a try.

Apples in wine sauce & cream

Boil six Pippins pared, (doe not cut the cores apieces) in Claret wine, a little more than will cover them, put in of sugar a good quantity, then boil a quart of good cream, with a little rosemary and thyme, sweeten it with sugar, one spoonful of sack, when they be cold put them together, lay your Apples like Eggs: Remember to boil in your Apples some ginger, lemmon pils very thin sliced.

Finally a refreshing alternative to cider from The Closet Of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digby Kt. Opened, 1677, where, again, rosemary is the flavoring of choice.

Apple-Drink with Sugar, Honey, &c..

A very pleasant drink is made of Apples, thus: Boil sliced Apples in water, to make the water strong of Apples, as when you make to drink it for coolness and pleasure. Sweeten it with Sugar to your taste, such a quantity of sliced Apples, as would make so much water strong enough of Apples; and then bottle it up close for three or four months. There will come a thick mother at the top, which being taken off, all the rest will be very clear, and quick and pleasant to the taste, beyond any Cider. It will be the better to most tastes, if you put a very little Rosemary into the liquor when you boil it, and a little Limon-peel into each bottle when you bottle it up.

Merry Newtonian Christmas !!!

Oct 202014


Today is the birthday (1632) of Sir Christopher Michael Wren PRS, one of the most highly acclaimed English architects in history. He was accorded responsibility for rebuilding 52 churches in the City of London after the Great Fire in 1666, including his masterpiece, St. Paul’s Cathedral, on Ludgate Hill in London, completed in 1710 (see ). What many people do not realize is that Wren was a notable anatomist, astronomer, geometer, and mathematician-physicist, as well as an architect, and was instrumental in founding the Royal Society, the prime scientific society in Britain to this day. His scientific work was highly regarded by Isaac Newton and Blaise Pascal.

Here’s a small gallery of Wren’s major architectural works just so that I do not ignore that aspect of his life completely.

wren8 wren7 wren6 wren5 wren3 wren2

Now, however, I would like to outline his accomplishments outside of architecture. On 25 June 1650, Wren entered Wadham College, Oxford, where he studied Latin and the works of Aristotle. There was no formal scientific education at Oxford at that time, but there was a circle of scientists who worked together outside their formal studies. Wren became closely associated with John Wilkins, the Warden of Wadham. The Wilkins circle was a group whose activities led to the formation of the Royal Society, consisting of a number of distinguished mathematicians, and experimental natural philosophers (physicists, biologists and chemists), including Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke (see ). He graduated with a B.A. in 1651, and two years later received his M.A. At Oxford then, as now, the M.A. is awarded after 2 years without further study. The degree system is based on the old trade guilds where apprentices become bachelors of the guild, and having pursued their craft for 2 years become masters by producing a “masterpiece.”

Portrait of Sir Christopher Wren

Having received his M.A. in 1653, Wren was elected a fellow of All Souls College in the same year and began an active period of research and experiment in Oxford. His days as a fellow of All Souls ended when he was appointed Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College in London in 1657. He was provided with a set of rooms and a stipend and was required to give weekly lectures in both Latin and English to all who wished to attend; admission was free. Wren took up this new work with enthusiasm. He continued to meet the men with whom he had frequent discussions in Oxford. They attended his London lectures and in 1660, initiated formal weekly meetings. It was from these meetings that the Royal Society, England’s premier scientific body, was to develop. He undoubtedly played a major role in these meetings; his great breadth of expertise in so many different subjects helping in the exchange of ideas between the various scientists.

In 1662, they proposed a society “for the promotion of Physico-Mathematicall Experimental Learning.” This body received its Royal Charter from Charles II and “The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge” was formed. In addition to being a founder member of the Society, Wren was president of the Royal Society from 1680 to 1682.

In 1661, Wren was elected Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford, and in 1669 he was appointed Surveyor of Works to Charles II. From 1661 until 1668 Wren’s life was based in Oxford, although his attendance at meetings of the Royal Society meant that he had to make occasional trips to London.

The main sources for Wren’s scientific achievements are the records of the Royal Society. His scientific works ranged from astronomy, optics, the problem of finding longitude at sea, cosmology, mechanics, microscopy, surveying, medicine and meteorology. He observed, measured, dissected, built models, and employed, invented and improved a variety of instruments. It was also around these times that his attention turned to architecture. One of Wren’s friends, another great scientist and architect and a fellow Westminster Schoolboy, Robert Hooke said of him “Since the time of Archimedes there scarce ever met in one man in so great perfection such a mechanical hand and so philosophical mind.”


When a fellow of All Souls, Wren constructed a transparent beehive for scientific observation; he began observing the moon, which was to lead to the invention of micrometers for the telescope. He experimented on terrestrial magnetism and had taken part in medical experiments while at Wadham College, performing the first successful injection of a substance into the bloodstream (of a dog).


In Gresham College, he did experiments involving determining longitude through magnetic variation and through lunar observation to help with navigation, and helped construct a 35-foot (11 m) telescope with Sir Paul Neile. Wren also studied and improved the microscope and telescope at this time. He had been making observations of the planet Saturn from around 1652 with the aim of explaining its appearance. His hypothesis was written up in De corpore saturni but before the work was published, Huygens presented his theory of the rings of Saturn. Immediately Wren recognized this as a better hypothesis than his own and De corpore saturni was never published. In addition, he constructed an exquisitely detailed lunar model and presented it to the king. Also his contribution to mathematics should be noted; in 1658, he found the length of an arc of the cycloid using an exhaustion proof based on dissections to reduce the problem to summing segments of chords of a circle which are in geometric progression.


A year into Wren’s appointment as a Savilian Professor in Oxford, the Royal Society was created and Wren became an active member. As Savilian Professor, Wren studied mechanics thoroughly, especially elastic collisions and pendulum motions. He also directed his far-ranging intelligence to the study of meteorology: in 1662 he invented the tipping bucket rain gauge and, in 1663, designed a “weather-clock” that would record temperature, humidity, rainfall and barometric pressure. A working weather clock based on Wren’s design was completed by Robert Hooke in 1679.


In addition, Wren experimented on muscle functionality, hypothesizing that the swelling and shrinking of muscles might proceed from a fermentative motion arising from the mixture of two heterogeneous fluids. Although this is incorrect, it was at least founded upon observation and may mark a new outlook on medicine: specialization.

Wren contributed to optics. He published a description of an engine to create perspective drawings and he discussed the grinding of conical lenses and mirrors. Out of this work came another of Wren’s important mathematical results, namely that the hyperboloid of revolution is a ruled surface. These results were published in 1669. In subsequent years, Wren continued with his work with the Royal Society, although after the 1680s his scientific interests seem to have waned: no doubt his architectural and official duties absorbed more time.

It was a problem posed by Wren that serves as an ultimate source to the conception of Newton’s Principia Mathematica Philosophiae Naturalis. Robert Hooke had theorized that planets, moving in a vacuum, describe orbits around the Sun because of a rectilinear inertial motion outward from the Sun and an accelerated motion towards the Sun. Wren’s challenge to Halley and Hooke, for the reward of a book worth thirty shillings, was to provide, within the context of Hooke’s hypothesis, a mathematical theory linking the Kepler’s laws with a specific force law. Halley took the problem to Newton for advice, prompting the latter to write a nine-page answer, De motu corporum in gyrum, which was later to be expanded into the Principia.


Wren also studied other areas, ranging from agriculture, ballistics, water and freezing, light and refraction, to name only a few. Thomas Birch’s History of the Royal Society is one of the most important sources of our knowledge not only of the origins of the Society, but also the day to day running of the Society. It is in these records that most of Wren’s known scientific works are recorded.

It was probably around this time that Wren was drawn into redesigning a battered St Paul’s Cathedral. Making a trip to Paris in 1665, Wren studied the architecture, which had reached a climax of creativity, and perused the drawings of Bernini, the great Italian sculptor and architect, who himself was visiting Paris at the time. Returning from Paris, he made his first design for St Paul’s. A week later, however, the Great Fire destroyed two-thirds of the city.

Additionally, he was sufficiently active in public affairs to be returned as Member of Parliament for Old Windsor in 1680, 1689 and 1690, but did not take his seat.

By 1669 Wren’s career was well established and it may have been his appointment as Surveyor of the King’s Works in early 1669 that persuaded him that he could finally afford to take a wife. In 1669 the 37-year-old Wren married his childhood neighbour, the 33-year-old Faith Coghill, daughter of Sir John Coghill of Bletchingdon. Little is known of Faith’s life or demeanor, but a love letter from Wren survives, which reads, in part:

I have sent your Watch at last & envy the felicity of it, that it should be soe near your side & soe often enjoy your Eye. … .but have a care for it, for I have put such a spell into it; that every Beating of the Balance will tell you ’tis the Pulse of my Heart, which labors as much to serve you and more trewly than the Watch; for the Watch I beleeve will sometimes lie, and sometimes be idle & unwilling … but as for me you may be confident I shall never …

This brief marriage produced two children: Gilbert, born October 1672, who suffered from convulsions and died at about 18 months old, and Christopher, born February 1675. The younger Christopher was trained by his father to be an architect. It was this Christopher that supervised the topping out ceremony of St Paul’s in 1710 and wrote the famous Parentalia, or, Memoirs of the family of the Wrens. Faith Wren died of smallpox on 3 September 1675. She was buried in the chancel of St Martin-in-the-Fields beside the infant Gilbert. A few days later Wren’s mother-in-law, Lady Coghill, arrived to take the infant Christopher back with her to Oxfordshire to raise.

In 1677, 17 months after the death of his first wife, Wren married once again. He married Jane Fitzwilliam, daughter of William FitzWilliam, 2nd baron FitzWilliam and his wife Jane Perry, the daughter of a prosperous London merchant.

She was a mystery to Wren’s friends and companions. Robert Hooke, who often saw Wren two or three times every week, had, as he recorded in his diary, never even heard of her, and was not to meet her till six weeks after the marriage. As with the first marriage, this too produced two children: a daughter Jane (1677–1702); and a son William, “Poor Billy” born June 1679, who was developmentally delayed.

Like the first, this second marriage was also brief. Jane Wren died of tuberculosis in September 1680. She was buried alongside Faith and Gilbert in the chancel of St Martin-in-the-Fields. Wren was never to marry again; he lived to be over 90 years old and of those years was married only nine.

The Wren family estate was at The Old Court House in the area of Hampton Court. He had been given a lease on the property by Queen Anne in lieu of salary arrears for building St Paul’s.[8] For convenience Wren also leased a house on St James’s Street in London. According to a 19th-century legend, he would often go to London to pay unofficial visits to St Paul’s, to check on the progress of “my greatest work”. On one of these trips to London, at the age of ninety, he caught a chill which worsened over the next few days. On 25 February 1723 a servant who tried to awaken Wren from his nap found that he had died.

Wren was laid to rest on 5 March 1723. His remains were placed in the south-east corner of the crypt of St Paul’s beside those of his daughter Jane, his sister Susan Holder, and her husband William. The plain stone plaque was written by Wren’s eldest son and heir, Christopher Wren, Jr. The inscription, which is also inscribed in a circle of black marble on the main floor beneath the centre of the dome, reads:



Here in its foundations lies the architect of this church and city, Christopher Wren, who lived beyond ninety years, not for his own profit but for the public good. Reader, if you seek his monument – look around you. Died 25 Feb. 1723, age 91.

It turns out that Wren had some interest in cookery as evidenced by a recipe for gooseberry wine recorded by the diarist John Evelyn. Among his manuscripts, now in the British Library, is a volume of “receipts” (recipes): for the stillroom, the sickroom and the kitchen. Those of cookery are now printed in this book:

The recipes range wide over the repertoire of the seventeenth-century household; from liver puddings to excellent syllabubs. They include items picked up on his travels in Europe, as well as favorites given him by friends, including that for gooseberry wine contributed by Sir Christopher Wren.


Living in southern China does not make it exactly easy for me to get hold of this book, so I have had to compromise. Go here and you will find an excellent recipe . It is more complex than Wren’s, I have no doubt, but fruit wines are all made in basically the same way: mash up the fruit, boil it, when cooled add yeast and sugar, let ferment, strain and bottle. Worth a shot.