A great Devonian conference

Last week saw the annual conference of the British Society for the History of Science, held at the University of Exeter. I have been going to these conferences for the last nine years and have always enjoyed them as convivial and intellectually stimulating occasions. As with all large(ish) general conferences with several parallel sessions there can be negatives: it’s hard work, there are usually a few annoing clashes in scheduling, and there is too little time for discussion during the sessions. However, historians of science are a friendly bunch and it is very easy to catch the person whose paper you had to miss to find out more, and to have discussions over lunch, dinner, drinks and into the night. All the better this year that the backdrop to such conversations was this glorious:

While there were many familiar faces, it was good to see a real broadening of the conference with newcomers to the field and a wider range of topics and approaches than we’ve sometimes seen. There were other innovations, including the new website, with its History of Science Travel Guide and a live Twitter stream (see the #bshs11 archive here). While there were still only a handful of us tweeting from Exeter, it’s a huge leap forward from zero in 2009 and two (me and @thrustvector) last year. Fiddling with your mobile phone during a talk is clearly still seen as odd or rude by many other attendees but, like note-taking, I find it can be a good way of maintaining concentration, as well as sharing events with people beyond the room.

With thirteen sessions, of 3-4 panels containing 3-4 papers each, I can’t really do justice with any kind of a summary of the talks, which ranged through philosophy, history of science, history of medicine and history of technology; from ancient to modern times; and – although many papers were focused on British history – a wide geographical spread. All I can do here is point out some highlights and interesting themes.

I attended two of the three plenary sessions, starting with a talk by Martin Rudwick that reflected on the genesis, content and reception of his best-known book, The Great Devonian Controversy (1988). Apt for Exeter, but also wonderful to hear how Rudwick moved from geology to history, about the role of visual imagery in his work (both historic and modern diagrams) and how his ideas and the evidence developed from the archives – where he happened on a cache of letters, bound together and labelled with what became the book’s title. The kind of find we all dream about!

Sally Horrocks gave her President’s Address on the Saturday, looking at science in the news in the 1950s-1960s. She has been searching Pathé News and a local television archive (sorry – I’ve forgotten the channel) for science and technology-related items. These are very different from the science TV documentaries studied by Tim Boon in Films of Fact, being more about entertainment, “fancy that” moments or local interest stories. Pathé, in particular, comes across as clear propaganda for British endeavour and science in general. Whatever the “back-room boys” are tinkering with or dreaming up, the assumption is that it will soon be of clear benefit to Britain or improve general quality of life. Yet, in a way, this is “upstream science journalism”, showing ordinary scientists, before results are apparent and papers published (‘upstream’ can, as I discussed with David Edgerton over the conference dinner, easily be seen as supporting the ‘linear model’ of innovation – see also Edgerton’s ‘The linear model did not exist’).

For me, there were two recurring themes at the meeting. One of these was the relationship between science and government, and a related interest in institutions and bureaucracies (yes: we all think boards are very exciting!). In a way this seems a little old-fashioned, as history of science has in recent years tended to take us away from elites and institutions, but the new approach seems to take greater account of the range of personalities, interests and motivations involved, and the relationship between political and scientific elites and other less-visible groups like artisans, technicians and businessmen. The panel I was on (see abstracts here), with three of us from the Board of Longitude Project, obviously spoke to these themes, but so did sessions on the 19th-century telegraph network, on ‘Navigation, Meteorology and Telegraphy’, on 20th-century agriculture, on applied chemistry, ‘Science, State and Planning’ and more.

The other notable theme was history of science and publics, or audiences. This has, admittedly, been a theme for BSHS for some time, especially in the newsletter and sessions run by the Outreach and Education Committee, but there was some great stuff to be enjoyed at Exeter. While some papers focused on the theme historically, for example looking at how the Mars canals or Huxley-Wilberforce debates were reported in the press, others discussed public engagement in our own field. One panel looked at Site Visits, with Martin Rudwick (again) making a case for the importance of visiting sites related to the history you are telling, and Joe Cain giving us all a much-needed pedagogical lesson on successful tour-leading. Another had Iwan Rhys Morus on using modern technology to recreate 19th-century electrical demonstrations, David Rooney reconstructing the processes by which he wrote a popular book on history of technology (masquerading as a biography of an unsung heroine), and Tim Boon on public history and co-curating at the Science Museum. Finally, although sadly I missed it, there was a session on oral histories, including the British Library’s Oral History of British Science and a wonderful-sounding project on experiences of a Welsh children’s TB sanitorium.

Much to enjoy, and much to think about.

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6 thoughts on “A great Devonian conference

  1. Pingback: A great Devonian conference | Whewell's Ghost

    • Many thanks for this – the conference does look fascinating. This was not a resource I knew anything about before coming across the Tim Boon talk, but I will be exploring further!

  2. Hi Becky, any chance of further details on Rudwick on the reception The Great Devonian Controversy? It’s an interesting tension that the book was considered a key work in the whole run of controversy studies and sociologically informed histories of science, but that particularly in his recent works he’s tended to look askance at historiographical trends arising out of that same milieu, because they tend to say little about the intellectual history, and favor English-language sources. I’d be curious to know what he had to say about this, if anything. (Naturally I should’ve attended, but I’m afraid BSHS wasn’t really on my radar this year).

    Oh, also, I can’t tell if you and David E. were agreeing or disagreeing. I know David’s protective of his “Linear Model Did Not Exist” argument, because it’s often misportrayed. His take on the situation is roughly that criticism of the linear model is usually based on a strawman “Research -> Development -> Technology” model that nobody holds, but people taken to be representing the linear model are usually just making the trivially true point that research is important to technology development (or perhaps that there is such a thing as an “upstream”). I did a post on this about a year ago, actually: here.

    • Unfortunately Rudwick said less about the reception than he might have done. The point that sticks in my mind is when he said that he was criticised by both sides in these debates, and so he “probably got it about right” (or something similar). In the talk he certainly focused on the social process of changing/developing ideas.

      You’re right, of course, that the Edgerton paper I linked to sort of makes the opposite point, which was lazy of me. The conversation we had is also recalled through the haze of several glasses of wine! I *think* the point is that, even if no one really believes it, the linear model might still used for propaganda purposes – or at least, in a slightly different version, the view that all research will ultimately (by whatever route) result in technological advance.

  3. Pingback: The disciplinary landscape of the historian of science | teleskopos

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