Monday, 29 September 2008

Andrew Crosse - A New Genesis?

In 1836 a sensation ran throughout the land. Had Andrew Crosse, using just an electrical current and a few samples of rock, created a new species of insect; "acarus crossii"? Many protested at the impertinence of a man to claim such a thing, to claim to have the power hitherto held only by God himself. What sort of man was this?

Andrew Crosse was born on the 17th of June 1784 in Somerset. He became fascinated with electricity, and was bright enough (and well off enough) to attend Oxford.

His parents died young leaving him responsible for their estates. In his spare time he began to experiment with electricity and his experiments became quite sophisticated. Some were so grand the villagers near by began to refer to him as 'the thunder and lightning man", some began to grow suspicious of what he was up to in his secluded manor.

But the experiment that drew the most attention was one perform in 1836. During an electrocrystallization experiment (Crosse's favourite type) he observed something odd. A "perfect insect, standing erect on a few bristles which formed its tail" had appeared right in the middle of his experiment and over the next few days they began to move. Within weeks there were hundreds of these insects and they moved around seeking shelter just as you'd expected any normal insect to act.

Crosse happened to mention the incident to some friends and published the results with the London Electrical Society. A local paper picked up the story and it soon spread to the nationals and even to Europe. Just as the press now can barely understand science (their reporting on the LHC was close to criminal in the high level of errors and misinformation, I might make errors but I'm not being paid to write for a national newspapers... they are!) the press then got the story a little mixed up. The people of our great country, in a grand tradition that continues to this day, got things mixed up and the inevitable death threats and outlandish accusations (such as Crosse causing a local crop failure) followed. They accused him of playing God and insulting the beliefs of the Christian nation of Britain. He went into hiding at his manor to avoid further trouble.

Of course Crosse had never claimed to have created life. He in fact attributed the emergence of the insects to a contamination of his experiment with insect eggs. Other later critics agreed with his assessment (although sadly many have not done their research and unfairly join his detractors in accusations of insanity against Crosse, little realising he was the first person to disown himself from the press' claims).

So... Andrew Crosse didn't create life... did he?

I'll leave you with this quote from wikipedia...

Other scientists tried to repeat the experiment. William Henry Weeks took extensive measures to assure a sealed environment for his experiment by placing it inside a bell jar. He obtained the same results as Crosse, but due to the controversy that Crosse's experiment had sparked his work was never published.

1 comment:

Gee said...

Well, consider expectations met. Informative and well written it's a cracking read.

Although, hurrumph, I was going to do a piece about Crosse next. I'll have to think of something else now.