Great Scot! What Science Owes to Scotland

By Leo Bear-McGuinness on at

Just as the remaining few Hogmanay hangovers gratefully ebb away, the sun rises on the streets of Scotland on January 25th. The cauld blaws the wind frae east to west and the last lines of Robert Burns’ Auld Lang Syne are thoughtlessly mumbled by a waking Glaswegian, wondering if the pubs will still be open on New Year’s Day. But just as he stops uttering Burns’ 230-year-old words, the whole of Scotland starts again.

Burns Night, or Rabbie Burns Day to his friends, is the annual celebration of the country’s national poet. Famed his verses and songs, such as A Red, Red Rose and Tam o’ Shanter, Robert Burns was popularising the Scots language long before Irvine Welsh suckled his first Irn Bru.

After his death, to celebrate his work (but mainly to have a royal piss up), the bard’s birthday quickly become a national celebration. And as the centuries passed, the poet’s legacy and nationality only further entwined. So, while many annual events still centre on Burns’ poems, the day has also grown to be a broader celebration of all things Scottish, from tartan to Trainspotting, whiskey to William Wallace.

And, while it may seem odd to some, there’s perhaps no better point of Scottish pride than science.

After all, Winston Churchill famously said that, “Of all the small nations of this earth, perhaps only the ancient Greeks surpass the Scots in their contribution to mankind.”

Of course, this glowing praise doesn’t quite fit in with the country’s national sentiment, dourness. Perhaps Scotland’s scientific achievements are best summed up by a native.

“John Logie Baird invented the TV, and when people came up to congratulate him, he replied, ‘Aye, but there’s f*ck all on’,” - Frankie Boyle.

Downplayed or not, Scotland’s contributions to science and technology can’t be denied. So to celebrate the tartan nation’s ingenuity and what would have been Robert Burns’ 260th birthday if Scottish scientists had only invented the cryochamber, Gizmodo ranks science’s greatest achievements, Caledonia-style.

The Devolution Will Not Be Televised

John Logie Baird was a relentless inventor. So it was such a shame that by the age of 34, he still hadn’t invented anything good. From his rust-less glass razor (which he badly cut himself on) to his dubious homemade haemorrhoid cream, Baird’s creations were certainly outside the box.

But by thinking inside the box, he later singlehandedly created the 20th century’s greatest entertainer or evil, depending on who you asked. No, not Cobain, television.

Using light and large spinning, holey discs, Baird’s TV could scan and televise an image almost instantaneously. In the beginning, the technology was put to good use, terrifying upmarket Londoners in Selfridges department store. But by its end in the early 21st century, TV had, of course, become the dark propaganda machine for the cruel and totalitarian island nation, Love Island.

Never mind, John.

Discover a Nebula? Neigh Bother

Williamina Fleming was Scotland’s first computer. But shirk away any thoughts of a tartan Commodore 64 powered by whiskey and resent. No, this computer was a Dundonian woman who knew how to compute.

After moving to America in 1878 with her husband, Fleming soon found herself pregnant, husbandless (he’d done a runner) and in need of a job. Luckily, Harvard College Observatory was in need of some computers – employees who could examine photographic plates of stars and calculate their brightness and positions.

Taking a shine to her work, Fleming would go on to study and classify over 10,000 astronomical phenomena, including one of the most well-known and unique celestial bodies to have ever been discovered, the Horsehead Nebula.

Of course, light from the nebula takes around 1,500 years to reach Earth, so maybe the PVA Glue Nebula would have been more apt. Don’t foal too bad, Williamina.

Ya Wit, Watt?

There’s a spot in Glasgow Green park with a fascinating history. It’s been the sight of some impressive brawls, a Michael Jackson concert and those precious few dog fowls that the owner actually picks up. But most famously, it’s the sight where James Watt thought up the Industrial Revolution.

Or near enough. The place of inspiration is now marked by an inscribed stone that gives a more accurate account, “Near this spot in 1765 James Watt conceived the idea for the separate condenser for the steam engine.”

Up until that eureka moment, steam engines had to be separately heated and cooled to condense the steam, which took up a lot of time and fuel. But with Watt’s improvements, engines became faster, safer, more fuel-efficient and finally worthy tools for the mills and factories that would kickstart the industrial age.

Grateful for Watt’s genius, scientists would later gift his name to both the popular unit of power and the phrase ‘Watt happens in Vegas stays in Vegas’.

Ya Absolute Toaster

By now, the accidental invention/discovery has become a bit of cliché. Fellow Scot Alexander Fleming famously stumbled across penicillin in his dirty petri dishes, and we can only enjoy the pleasure of microwave meals because Percy LeBaron Spencer once walked past a magnetron that melted the chocolate bar in his pocket.

But before either of these brilliant blunders, there was Alan MacMasters and the first electric toaster.

Born in Edinburgh, 1865, MacMasters became a keen engineer and was hired to develop an underground lighting system for the new Glasgow Underground project. And his lighting system was good. So good that London wanted it more and hired MacMasters to implement it into the city’s southern railway.

In true ‘Scot-living-in-London’ style, MacMasters was unhappy with the city’s prices and opted for a cheaper metal for his filaments. While working in his lab, the knock-off lamps ran so hot that his nearby uneaten bread began to burn.

After telling his engineer friend, Evelyn Crompton, the story, the industrialist bought MacMasters’ design and went on to mass produce the first toaster to poor financial success. At this stage, you did have to manually flip the bread, yourself, after all.

MacMasters died on Christmas Day, 1927. Probably after a toast.

Maxwell’s Silver Glamour

James Clerk Maxwell was a truly exceptional scientist and a truly average poet.

“An inextensible heavy chain,
Lies on a smooth horizontal plane,
An impulsive force is applied at A,
Required the initial motion of K,”
James Clerk Maxwell.

Not bad. Not great. When weighted against Scotland’s behemoth bard himself, Robert Burns, it’s easy to understand why Maxwell might have stuck to his day job, the 19th century’s greatest physicist.

Sometimes known as ‘Scotland’s forgotten Einstein’, Maxwell’s scientific achievements could even give the tongue-toting physicist a run for his money. By the time he was 48, the Edinburgh-born scientist had demonstrated the primary colours of light, deduced the particle nature of Saturn’s rings, developed the world’s first colour photograph, and devised a unifying theory of electromagnetism. Not bad. Phenomenal, in fact.

Scottish Gas

In 1898, William Ramsay discovered krypton. And in the nick of time, too. Because it would be destroyed 40 years later in Superman’s first comic appearance.

Fortunately for Ramsay, outside of the fictional DC universe, the krypton element remained in existence, and has yet to trouble any bespectacled Daily Planet journalist.

But this chemically inert gas wasn’t the Glasgow-born chemist’s only discovery. Working with Lord Rayleigh (no, not that one), Ramsay classified several new gases, including argon, helium, neon and xenon. These pretty unreactive, odourless, colourless gases were so chemically similar to each other that Ramsay ended up giving them their own name, the noble gases.

After all, to find an odourless gas in Victorian Glasgow would have been a noble feat.

In recognition for their gassy work, both Ramsay and Raleigh received Nobel prizes in 1904 for chemistry and physics, respectively, which makes Ramsay one of Scotland’s 15 citizens to have been awarded the honour. He was reportedly the sweetest smelling.

Sunshine on Sheep

It doesn’t take much to become the world’s most famous sheep. Other than a sheep that happens to be lance corporal in the British army (for “good behaviour”), there aren’t many ewes worth knowing about. Still, this lack of competition doesn’t take away Dolly the Sheep’s trophy and place in the animal wool of fame.

Born in Roslin, 1996, as the world’s first cloned mammal from an adult cell, Dolly was at once both completely unique and a total rip-off.

And while she was first created to produce better genetically modified livestock, the nature of Dolly’s conception quickly stole the spotlight. Accusations of ‘playing God’ were thrown across the world’s media and many feared it wouldn’t be long before such cloning techniques were used on humans.

But fast forward 20 years or more, and there’s still no sign of any covert clone apocalypse. Of course, that’s what a clone would write…

Featured image: Unsplash/Gizmodo UK