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An innocent scientist

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The Selborne Hanger, Hampshire
Image: Colin Smith, Geograph, Creative Commons License

An old and obsolete meaning of the word research is to seek a woman in love or marriage. Gilbert White conducted his natural researches with that kind of passion. He was one of those British clergymen - they include Thomas Malthus, John Ray, Edmund Cartwright, Joseph Priestley - who made contributions to science. White made detailed observations of birds in flight, mating, building nests, singing - "as long as there is any incubation going on there is music", migrating, even the sound a swallow makes when taking a fly - "a smart snap, resembling the noise at the shutting of a watch-case". He collected the dates of emergence for more than 400 plant and animal species, pursuing his researches outdoors, in the fields, by the sea, on vast hills of chalk and in the beechwoods on Selborne Hanger.

He described his findings in letters to scientifically inclined friends, and collected his letters in The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, which has been in print ever since publication in 1789. It includes folk-customs, leprosy in earlier centuries, landslides, the slow, month-long copulation of a tortoise, and White's decades-long observations of birds, insects and the weather.

Because he is often outdoors, and because he can write, he encounters and evokes unique events -

On September the 21st, 1741, being then on a visit, and intent on field-diversions, I rose before daybreak: when I came into the enclosures, I found the stubbles and clover-grounds matted all over with a thick coat of cobweb, in the meshes of which a copious and heavy dew hung so plentifully that the whole face of the country seemed, as it were, covered with two or three setting-nets drawn one over another. When the dogs attempted to hunt, their eyes were so blinded and hoodwinked that they could not proceed, but were obliged to lie down and scrape the incumbrances from their faces with their fore-feet, so that, finding my sport interrupted, I returned home musing in my mind on the oddness of the occurrence.

. . .About nine an appearance very unusual began to demand our attention, a shower of cobwebs falling from very elevated regions, and continuing, without any interruption, till the close of the day. These webs were not single filmy threads, floating in the air in all directions, but perfect flakes or rags; some near an inch broad, and five or six long, which fell with a degree of velocity which showed they were considerably heavier than the atmosphere. On every side as the observer turned his eyes might he behold a continual succession of fresh flakes falling into his sight, and twinkling like stars as they turned their sides towards the sun. How far this wonderful shower extended would be difficult to say; but we know that it reached Bradley, Selborne, and Alresford, three places which lie in a sort of a triangle, the shortest of whose sides is about eight miles in extent. . .

I call Gilbert White innocent because though he has some prejudices he is untainted by any scientific preconceptions or ideologies that would propel him to make vast global claims. It is a relief to hear him exclaim, "This is one of those incidents in natural history that not only baffles our searches, but almost eludes our guesses!" And, "Though there is endless room for observation in the field of nature, which is boundless, yet investigation (where a man endeavours to be sure of his facts) can make but slow progress."

How unlike he is from those scientists who bend the facts to their will, discerning hockey sticks among temperature readings, and quite unashamed when it is pointed out that anyone can impose a hockey stick on any group of numbers if only he is willing to manipulate them.

Gilbert White is particular about noting the weather. Dry, warm winters, early springs, hot summers and late autumn days of unusual warmth were familiar to him. I wonder if climatologists have reviewed the Natural History, to learn what the weather was two hundred years ago in the south of England and the rather variable dates of emergence?

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Image: Dr Neil Clifton, Geograph, Creative Commons License

Geograph explains, "Gilbert White was not a rich man and could not afford statues to decorate his garden. Instead he used wooden boards painted to resemble statues at the end of sight lines as here through the field gates."

Here he would often have walked or ridden out on parish business, a small book and pencil in his pocket, ever ready to make a note of the rich natural world all around him.

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