Science! thou fair effusive ray…

By Grant Jacobs 09/04/2013

Science! thou fair effusive ray
From the great source of mental Day,
Free, generous, and refin’d!
Descend with all thy treasures fraught,
Illumine each bewilder’d thought,
And bless my lab’ring mind.

But first with thy resistless light,
Disperse those phantoms from my sight,
Those mimic shades of thee;
The scholiast’s learning, sophist’s cant,
The visionary bigot’s rant,
The monk’s philosophy.

O! let thy powerful charms impart
The patient head, the candid heart,
Devoted to thy sway;
Which no weak passions e’er mislead,
Which still with dauntless steps proceed
Where Reason points the way.

Give me to learn each secret cause;
Let number’s, figure’s, motion’s laws
Reveal’d before me stand;
These to great Nature’s scenes apply,
And round the globe, and thro’ the sky,
Disclose her working hand.

Next, to thy nobler search resign’d,
The busy, restless, human mind
Thro’ ev’ry maze pursue;
Detect Perception where it lies,
Catch the ideas as they rise,
And all their changes view.

[… and on for 11 more verses! You can read the full poem at the Spenserians’ website.]

Written in 1739 and published in the Gentleman’s Magazine, this ode to science penned by a then seventeen year-old Mark Akenside, was brought to my attention by Simon Flynn’s little book, The Science Magpie. Flynn describes Akenside as switching from “preparing for life as a nonconformist clergyman to training in medicine.” Akenside went on to become physician to the queen.

Pseudoscience is something frequently addressed on sciblogs. One thing I like about Akenside’s ditty is how it’s second verse deals to pseudoscience—“these mimic shades of thee”—all 250-plus years later:

But first with thy resistless light,
Disperse those phantoms from my sight,
Those mimic shades of thee;
The scholiast’s learning, sophist’s cant,
The visionary bigot’s rant,
The monk’s philosophy.


It’s interesting, too, that he sets out to push pseudoscience aside first – perhaps a reflection of his career path moving from religion to science.

While directed at a newly discovered manuscript dedication by Mark Akenside, the latter portion of a Medical History article by Robin Dix relates some of Akenside’s work including his thesis, De ortu et incremento foetus humani (The birth and growth of the human foetus).

Here’s some of what Robin Dix has to say on this,

[…] like many Edinburgh students, he crossed the Channel to gain his degree at Leiden by submitting his thesis to the Medical Faculty there. The result was a work at the cutting edge of research at the time, De ortu et incremento foetus humani, accepted for his degree and published in May 1744. Although it seems to have been largely forgotten, and does not figure in modern medical histories, it was, as George Potter long ago observed, a groundbreaking work in that it rejected the dominant embryological theory of the time, namely preformationism or the idea that within the eggs or sperm of a creature’s parents there were, already in existence, minute versions of their offspring. It predated by about a year works by other, more established researchers whose books had a similar tendency to undermine the ideas of the preformationists. Reproduction, preformationists believed, was essentially the growth, under conditions rendered favourable by mating, of the foetus to the point where it burst from the egg, or the womb, like a flower bursting from the bud. It was a theory which had come to be widely adopted in the late seventeenth century, as technological improvements in the production of lenses enabled scientists to see the myriad creatures of the microscopic world, and habituated them to the existence of what would previously have been the unimaginably tiny forms of life with which Nature teemed.

It was in the later 1740s that objections to the notion of a preformed embryo started to be raised. Observed patterns of heredity, for example, should surely have raised questions in the minds of preformationists all along: as children partake of the characteristics of both parents, an embryo could scarcely have been fully formed, either in the egg of the mother, or the sperm of the father.

[citations omitted for clarity]

If you like history of science, it’s worth following Dix’s article for more.

Other articles in Code for life:

Wellcome diversions

Explore ancient science books on-line

Crick’s letter to son, aged 12, explaining DNA structure model

137 years of Popular Science back issues, free

Royal science

Map shows New Zealand with lowest death rate on earth in 1856, over 11 in 1000 dying