Elisabeth Christina von Linné’s spark

Tropaeolum majus

For some time, I have had this idea of giving more spotlight to the women science might have forgotten, to show young girls out there that science has always been a place where women have been. Maybe not as frequently as men, it wasn’t generally accepted after all, but they’re there if you look. Some women made a mark on history even if society were against them. Maybe they were wives or daughters of scientists and learned men, maybe they just stood their ground, insisting to do what they loved despite the resistance.

I found it hard to decide what brilliant mind I was going to start with, but after some research I found, to my joyful surprise, that my idol Carl Linnaeus own daughter had made a mark in history. Small, maybe not that relevant at all, but I couldn’t help but instantly love her. As a biologist, carrying a name after Linnaeus himself, I felt it was my duty to introduce Elisabeth Christina von Linné to anyone that would care enough to notice her.

Little twilight flashes

One day, the summer of 1762, Elisabeth Christina noticed something interesting. She was sitting in her fathers garden in Hammarby, north of Uppsala, and saw that the orange-red nasturtium flowers (Tropaeolum majus) seem to send out little flashes of lightning in the twilight. A few days later she showed her father her discovery, he had never heard or seen anyone talking about it and encouraged her to write down her observations and send in to a scientific paper active at the time, since he didn’t have the time himself.

E.C. von Linné

It should be noted that, as a woman, she did not have any formal schooling, but she did develop an interest in botany that her father supported. Elisabeth Christina came up with a few theories as to what could cause the twilight flashes, she guessed it could have to do with something invisible reflecting in the leaves of the flower and something to do with the eyes, since it was easier to see the flashes if she moved her head than if she just stared at them point blank. In the end, she concluded that it should probably be further studied by someone better trained than her.

The German writer and naturalist, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, was fascinated by the mystery and named it Das Elisabeth Linné-Phänomen, the Elizabeth Linnaeus Phenomenon. The conundrum of the flowers was finally solved by German professor F.A.W. Thomas, in a paper published 1914, where he established that the phenomenon was indeed optical, a result of the way our eyes perceive the flowers’ colors in the twilight. Simply put, we have cone cells and rod cells in our eyes. Cone cells in our eyes make us see color, and rod cells make us see light intensity. When it’s dark we mostly see with the rod cells in our eyes, so in faint light like during twilight, the red in the flowers react with the cone cells by sending a signal to the brain that is registered like a flash.

Not all women, or men for that matter, make a big dent in history, but it’s nice to know that even such a small thing as sitting in the garden of your family home watching the flowers can lead to something special. Curiosity is everything. Watch the world and maybe it will gleam back at you, that’s what I think can be learned from Elisabeth Christina’s little discovery for science.

/ Linnea

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