Mother of Biology

Maria Sibylla Merian, Metamorphosis of the silkworm, from Studienbuch (Book of Studies).

Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-04-02 – 1717-01-13) was born in Frankfurt am Main, she is notable as an entomologist and scientific illustrator. She spent much of her life living in what is now Germany and the Netherlands, where she died, but also two years in the Dutch colony of Surinam, in South America. Today, it is 375 years since she was born.

After her father, Matthäus Merian der Ältere (1593 – 1650), a Swiss-born engraver/ publisher, died when she was three, her widowed mother, Johanna Sybilla Heim(ius), remarried Jabob Marrel (1613/4 – 1681), a still-life painter, in 1651. Merian received her artistic training from Marrel.

Many Dutch dissenters also moved to Frankfurt, seeking refuge from persecution in the Netherlands. They turned their attention to silkworm breeding and the silk trade towards the end of the 16th century. Maria Sibylla Merian’s earliest nature studies had their origins in this context. She started to collect insects as an adolescent. At 13, she raised silkworms.

In 1665, Merian married Johann Andreas Graff, an apprentice of Marrel. In 1668, her first child, Johanna, was born. The family moved to Nuremberg in 1670. In addition to painting and other artistic activities she gave drawing lessons to unmarried daughters of wealthy families, which helped her family financially, and gave her with access to private gardens, where she could collect and document insects.

She published her first book of natural illustrations in 1675. In 1678 a second daughter, Dorothea Maria, was born, and the family moved back to Frankfurt am Main. In 1679 she published the first volume of a two-volume series on caterpillars, opening with a presentation of the silkworm’s life-cycle.

Merian’s marriage was unhappy, and she moved in with her mother after her stepfather died in 1681. The second volume on caterpillars appearing in 1683. Each volume contained 50 plates that she engraved and etched. These documented the process of insect metamorphosis, and recorded the plant hosts of 186 European insect species. She also included descriptions of insect life cycles.

In 1683, Merian travelled to Gottorp, in Schleswig-Holstein, where she became attracted to the Labadist community, founded by Jean de Labadie (1610–1674). He originally came from the Bordeaux region of France. Later, the community moved to Walta Castle, at Wieuwerd in Friesland.

In 1685, Merian moved with her mother, husband, and children to Friesland. The Labadist community generated income from farming, milling and craftsmenship. Children were tutored communally. Women had traditional roles. A printing press was set up, to disseminate writings by Labadie and others, including Anna van Schurman, (1607 – 1678) painter/ engraver/ poet/ scholar and defender of female education. Another member, Hendrik van Deventer (1651 – 1724),[skilled in chemistry and medicine, set up a laboratory and was regarded as a pioneering obstetrician.

Here, Merian studied natural history and Latin, used as a scientific language. On Friesland’s moors she observed frog development, collecting and dissecting them. Merian’s mother died in 1690, and Merian moved, with her daughters, to Amsterdam in 1691. In 1692, her husband divorced her, and her daughter Johanna married Jakob Hendrik Herolt, a successful merchant in the Surinam trade.

In 1699, Merian and her younger daughter, Dorothea Maria Graff (1678–1743), travelled to Surinam to study and record the tropical insects native to the region. This was financed by selling 255 paintings. For two years she travelling throughout the colony, sketching local animals and plants, recording local/ native names and describing local uses.

Merian criticised the colonial merchants for their obsession with sugar. She took a broader interest in local agriculture, especially the vegetables and fruits that could be grown in Suriname, such as the pineapple. She also condemned their treatment of slaves. One such enslaved person assisted her in her research, and allowed her to interact with other Amerindian and African slaves.

In 1705, she published Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium. Merian’s Metamorphosis has been credited with influencing a range of naturalist illustrators. In Metamorphosis, she writes: “I have been concerned with the study of insects since my youth. I started with silkworms in my native Frankfurt. Later I realized that other caterpillars developed into much more beautiful diurnal and nocturnal butterflies.”

Because of her documented observations of butterfly metamorphosis, she is often considered to be the founder, and a significant contributor, to the field of entomology. Through her studies, Merian discovered many facts about insect life, earning her the title of mother of biology.

Maria Sibylla Merian from 1679, possibly by Jacob Marrel

More information about the life and work of Merian can be found in an article by Tanya Latty.

Sci-Hub

The Sci-Hub logo.

When people feel that society is not working for them, they create their own solutions. Many become criminals. Some participate in guerrilla actions, ranging from one-off events to lifestyle transitions. A few found institutions, businesses and organizations to resolve these points of conflict. In this post, one will meet numerous people, and institutions that have arisen to gain free access to scientific information.

In the beginning, there was The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), an international non-profit digital rights group based in San Francisco, California. The foundation was formed 1990-07-10 by activist John Gilmore (1955 – ), poet, essayist and cattle rancher John Perry Barlow (1947 – 2018) and entrepreneur Mitch Kapor (1950 – ) to promote Internet civil liberties.

The EFF “provides funds for legal defense in court, presents amicus curiae briefs, defends individuals and new technologies from what it considers abusive legal threats, works to expose government malfeasance, provides guidance to the government and courts, organizes political action and mass mailings, supports some new technologies which it believes preserve personal freedoms and online civil liberties, maintains a database and web sites of related news and information, monitors and challenges potential legislation that it believes would infringe on personal liberties and fair use and solicits a list of what it considers abusive patents with intentions to defeat those that it considers without merit.”

The EFF had noted that more than half of all academic publishing is controlled by five publishers, using paywalls justified on the premise that they compensate publishers for their investment in editing, curating, and publishing. Yet, a large portion of that work involves uncompensated peer-reviews by scholars. In addition, much of the research behind these articles is publicly funded. Because of this, the EFF and many others argue that the results should be freely available.

On 2005-06-15, Reddit was born, a website with 1.) social news aggregation, 2.) web content rating, and 3.) discussion. It claims to be the front-page of the internet. It was founded by spez = Steve Huffman (1983 – ) and Alexis Ohanian (1983 – ), students at the University of Virginia. Later, Aaron Swartz (1986 – 2013) was given founder status for his work rewriting Reddit’s Lisp codebase using Python and web.py. Already in 2006-10, Reddit had been acquired.

According to Alexa Internet, Reddit ranks as the 18th-most-visited website in the world and 7th most-visited website in the USA. Somewhat less than half of its user base is from USA, and with users from the UK and Canada, Anglophiles dominate. Most of these are young. Some would even say that a large portion of the user base is eager to change the world. They are in part inspired by Swartz as computer programmer, entrepreneur, writer, political organizer, and Internet hacktivist.

Reddit looks somewhat old fashioned with a bulletin board system that displays user-generated content (texts, photos, videos, links) and content discussions. Reddit is a play-on-words with read it. According to Reddit, there were approximately 430 million monthly users, or redditors (in 2019). Content is divided into 138 000 subreddits = categories/ communities. Redditor posts and comments result in a conversation. These can be voted upon using positive upvotes and negative downvotes. These votes determine a post’s site visibility. Redditors earn karma for their posts and comments. After six months, posts are automatically archived, prohibiting comments and votes.

Sci-Hub was founded by Kazakhstani computer programmer Alexandra Elbakyan (1988 – ) in 2011 in response to the high cost of research papers behind paywalls. The site is extensively used worldwide. One estimate is that it serves 400 000 requests per day to provides free access to an archive over 85 million research papers and books using 77 TB of data, without regard to copyright. It uses a variety of approaches to bypass publishers’ paywalls. Science journalist John Bohannon described Sci-Hub as “an awe-inspiring act of altruism or a massive criminal enterprise, depending on whom you ask.”

In 2019, a community of redditors downloaded and released 33TB of scientific papers and books from Library Genesis, a site similar to Sci-Hub. Now, the r/DataHoarder subreddit is involved in a new rescue mission for Open Science. It involves approximately 8 500 individuals torrenting papers in order to download the entire library. The goal is to make an open-source library that cannot be taken down.

Torrenting? Torrenting is a form of downloading where a torrent (aka tracker) will break up a file into smaller pieces, called packets. Some participants in the process (seeders) will have the entire file in their possession. Others, varyingly called peers or leechers, will only have some of the parts, but are in the process of acquiring them all. The torrent file being downloaded keeps track of who has which packet and alternate sources.

Harvard University warned in 2012 that subscription fees for scientific journals were becoming prohibitively expensive. The European Union, through European Commissioner covering the portfolio of Research, Science and Innovation, Carlos Moedas (1970 – ), announced 2016-05-28 that all publicly funded scientific papers published in Europe could be made free to access by 2020.

Guidelines were released in 2017, and in part state: “Modern research builds on extensive scientific dialogue and advances by improving earlier work. The Europe 2020 strategy for a smart, sustainable and inclusive economy underlines the central role of knowledge and innovation in generating growth. Broader access to scientific publications and data therefore helps to[:] build on previous research results (improved quality of results)[;] encourage collaboration and avoid duplication of effort (greater efficiency)[;] speed up innovation (faster progress to market means faster growth)[;] involve citizens and society (improved transparency of the scientific process)[.]” (p. 4)

Now, Redditors at the r/DataHoarder subreddit are trying to preserve the numerous papers available on Sci-Hub. In a post dated 2021-05-13, the moderators of r/DataHoarder, provided “… a clearer message about the fate of Sci-Hub and open science. We are the library, we do not get silenced, we do not shut down our computers, and we are many.” Redditors aim to release all of the downloaded data via a new uncensorable open-source website.

The Sci-Hub logo: An aside

In the next three paragraphs, Alexandra Elbakyan comments on the Sci-Hub logo, “The history of Sci-Hub logo is less intriguing than it appears to be. When Sci-Hub started in 2011, its first logo was a simple Soviet hammer and sickle, and when the mouse pointer hovered upon it, a text showed up stating: „Communism is … common ownership of the means of production with free access to articles of consumption.“

I took this communism definition from a Wikipedia page and it fitted Sci-Hub very neatly. I was lucky because that definition of communism in Wikipedia was only in 2011 – if you check earlier versions of Wiki article about communism or later versions, they do not contain anything about „free access to articles“.

In 2014 I created a group in a social network to bring together Sci-Hub users (vk.com/sci_hub). First I used the Mendeleev table as a logo, after that it was an alchemical serpent. Later I decided to look up some picture in Google with a key and books to use as a group logo, and found that Raven sitting on books, holding a key. I loved that picture and immediately put it up as a logo on Sci-Hub’s social network group. Later in 2015, I decided to re-design Sci-Hub website and create a modern design, and used the group raven logo as a website logo.”

Wikipedia 2018

Soon I should be receiving those irritating annual appeals to donate to Wikipedia. This year I won’t be giving! The main reason is this article appearing in the Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/oct/03/donna-strickland-nobel-physics-prize-wikipedia-denied

This week Donna Strickland was awarded the Nobel prize in Physics. In March, she was deemed too insignificant to warrant a Wikipedia article.

Donna Strickland, one of three people who earned a Nobel prize in Physics in 2018.

Wikipedia is yet another male dominated organization that needs to be disrupted. What this world needs now is gender balance. I would like to know what Wikipedia is doing to ensure that more than 16% of the site’s volunteer editors are female? Is the Wikipedia working environment making life inviting enough to encourage more female editors? Indeed, I would like to know more about gender bias in the criteria for notability, and why only 17% of entries dedicated to notable people are for women?

I will end this post by offering my congratulations to Donna Strictland for earning her Nobel prize.

Update

An reader was concerned about today’s blog and suggested I ” should actually look into the matter before starting rogue boycott actions. If [I] feel there isn’t sufficient coverage of a topic on Wikipedia, don’t complain about others not writing articles, start writing them yourself.”

In a conversation with this reader, it was pointed out that the issue was not about Strictland’s notability, but verification of this notability that was lacking. Verifiability is especially important for living people, since incorrect information can have serious consequences, and be difficult to correct. This reader also pointed out that the number of notable men is larger than notable women.