Practical magic

The first European society for scientific inquiry was probably the Academy of the Mysteries of Nature, which met in the home of Giambattista della Porta, in Naples, Italy, beginning in 1560. Membership was open to anyone who could produce an original discovery in the field of natural science.

Giambattista della Porta
Giambattista della Porta

Della Porta was the author of Natural Magic, a 20-volume encyclopedia of popular science, written in Latin and published first in 1558.

Della Porta had the idea that much of what had come down through the ages as magic actually represented early, and often unwitting, incursions into areas that science was only then beginning to explain.

He and his society undertook to test various magical cures and activities to see if they had any merit. The academy would endorse only practices it had vetted. In other words, its members were practicing a rudimentary form of the scientific method.

The Academy of the Mysteries of Nature was short-lived. It was ordered closed by the Catholic Church after the Inquisition charged that the academy was involved in sorcery.

Not only did della Porta comply with the order, but he also became a Jesuit brother before his death in 1615.

Anton van Leeuwenhoek

Anton van Leeuwenhoek was a linen merchant in Delft, the Netherlands, whose passion for science helped make him one of the most important figures in the history of microbiology.

Van Leeuwenhoek saw his first microscope, in use in the fabric trade, in 1653, and he soon bought one of his own. He read Robert Hooke's Micrographia, and it reportedly enthralled him.

Anton van Leeuwenhoek

Anton van Leeuwenhoek

By 1668, he was grinding lenses for his own simple microscopes and looking at every tiny thing he could find. Those two things — his boundless curiosity and the fact that he kept improving his lenses — were critical to his discoveries.

Van Leeuwenhoek was the first to identify microorganisms, notably protists and bacteria, and the first to describe red blood cells and sperm.

Van Leeuwenhoek's discoveries were documented in letters he wrote to Henry Oldenburg, secretary of the Royal Society of London, between 1673 and Van Leeuwenhoek's death in 1723. The letters made him famous, and the Royal Society made him a fellow in 1680.

Over the course of his lifetime, van Leeuwenhoek made at least 500 microscopes. The few that survive are little more than powerful magnifying glasses. However, he developed his own technology for making them, and he never revealed the secrets of their power and brightness.

Portrait by Jan Verkolje from Wikimedia Commons

A first look at the small world

In 1665, the Englishman Robert Hooke published an amazing book called Micrographia that contained some of the first peeks at a world that was too small to see with the naked eye.

Micrographia, published when Hooke was 30, was the first publication of the Royal Society of London, and the first scientific best-seller. The diarist Samuel Pepys called it "the most ingenious book that I ever read in my life."

Hooke made the illustrations himself, based on what he had seen through a microscope he had built. Looking at a slice of cork, he saw divisions that reminded him of monks' cells in a monastery, and that is what he called them, "cells."

Cork drawing by Robert Hooke

Robert Hooke's drawing of cork cells

Hooke was born on the Isle of Wight, home-schooled and then apprenticed as an artist. He went on to Oxford at a time of unprecedented scientific activity, and he impressed his teachers with his ability to design and execute experiments: He built the vacuum pumps for Robert Boyle, who would demonstrate that gases all act in more or less the same way.

Hooke himself described how springs work in a treatise that gave rise to "Hooke's law" of elasticity. He was also an architect, and worked to help rebuild London after the Great Fire of 1666.

Hooke would probably be more famous than he is had he not quarreled with Isaac Newton over some of their overlapping discoveries. When the scientific community took sides in the dispute, Hooke was shunted aside.

His writings on fossils showed amazing rigor and originality. In the face of a scientific community that considered fossils a "sport of nature," Hook argued correctly that they were the remains of extinct organisms.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Clear as glass

Glass-making is an ancient art, originally developed in the Middle East. Its secrets have been lost, re-discovered at different times and in different processes, and eventually spread around the world. The magnifying properties of glass were obvious and often remarked upon.

Modern lenses evolved from reading stones — rock crystal, for example, that was shaped into magnifiers, the first step toward creating instruments that would make the minute world visible.

Reading stone

Reading stone

The scientist and mathematician Abu Ali Hasan Ibn Al-Haitham, also known as Alhazen, "the father of modern optics," working in 11th-century Spain, described many of the properties of light, including refraction and color, as well as the magnifying properties of  lenses.

Some talented Italian made the first eyeglasses in Europe, for far-sightedness only, sometime in the 13th century. Nicholas Cusanus, a brilliant German cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church, is credited with making the first eyeglasses for myopia, in 1451.

In 1604, Johannes Kepler, the great German mathematician, astronomer and inventor, published Optics, an astonishing treatise that covered the nature and action of light, as well as the mechanics of sight. Optics became part of the bedrock of physics.

In 1611, Kepler improved on Galileo's telescope by replacing its concave eyepiece with a convex one. (Candidates abound for the honor of inventing the telescope, around 1600.)

Incidentally, Kepler's mother, Katharina, was accused of witchcraft in 1615, when she was about 70. He handled her defense himself, eventually winning her acquittal. Katharina Kepler reportedly had played a part in her son's lifelong love affair with the heavens: When he was six years old, she took him to "a high place" so he could see the spectacle of the Great Comet of 1577 in the night sky.

Image from Zeiss Optical Museum

The March of Dimes

President Franklin Roosevelt founded the forerunner of the March of Dimes, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, in 1938, to raise money for research to find a cure for poliomyelitis, and to care for victims of the disease.

Roosevelt himself was paralyzed after being stricken by "polio," also called infantile paralysis, in 1921. The NFIP itself was an expansion of Roosevelt's Warm Springs Foundation, which sponsored a rehabilitation center for polio victims in Warm Springs, Ga.March of Dimes poster

In 1938, during a radio fund-raising campaign for the NFIP, the entertainer Eddie Cantor coined the term "The March of Dimes" as he urged listeners to contribute their spare change to defeat polio. The term, as Cantor used it, was a play on the popular newsreel series "The March of Time."

The campaign against polio is one of the great medical success stories. The March of Dimes provided the money for the development of two effective vaccines, by Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin. Within little more than a decade, polio was reduced from one of the scourges of the 20th century to a footnote in the 21st.

A global effort to eradicate polio altogether by the year 2000 fell short; the latest target date for eradication, in parts of Africa and Asia, is 2013.

In 1958, with polio under control in the United States, the March of Dimes re-directed its efforts toward a new campaign, to eliminate birth defects. The following year, Dr. Virginia Apgar, who in 1953 had devised a scoring system for the well being of newborns, joined the organization that was then still headed by President Roosevelt's former law partner, Basil O'Connor.

For the past half-century, the March of Dimes has been involved in virtually every effort undertaken to improve the health of babies in this country and, more recently, around the world.

The March of Dimes supported research that showed that a pregnant woman's consumption of alcohol could cause birth defects, as well as the development of surfactant therapy for premature babies with respiratory distress, to name a couple.

Image from Wikimedia Commons