We have always been modern, and it has often scared us

Cross-posted from The H Word blog.

Boy with a tablet: advertising innovation technology

The idea that our world and even our minds are being made radically different by new technologies, above all the internet and social media, is everywhere. On Friday in these very pages, Jonathan Freedland wrote, “I once thought the world of the internet would be the same as before, only faster. In fact, it’s altering every corner of human life.”

He worries, particularly, that memory, “a fundamental aspect of human life”, is endangered, and our ability to process information. He quotes Leon Wieseltier who is concerned that reading today “is under pressure from all this speed of the internet and the whole digital world”, and that we will thereby lose the benefits of this “cognitive, mental, emotional action”. We are, he says, “happily, even giddily, governed by the values of utility, speed, efficiency and convenience”.

There are shades here of Susan Greenfield and her warnings about the hideous consequences of using social media while wearing onesies, soelegantly discussed by some of my fellow Guardian Science bloggers.

Fortunately, Freedland is canny enough to add at the end, “Perhaps there was similar angst at the birth of the printing press,” although he somewhat undoes this excellent point by insisting that today’s dangers are somehow much more pervasive than any earlier examples of technological change. He was, however, also wise enough to retweet a link to a post from the webcomic xkcd on The Pace of Modern Life as a “corrective”.

In a series of quotes from the 1870s to 1915, it scotches the idea that people have only started to notice and worry about speed and modernity in recent times. Apparently in 1871 the art of letter-writing was dying. It was the art of conversation itself that was threatened in 1890. “We live at too fast a rate,” it was lamented in 1892 and in 1894 our fast and superficial reading threatened our ability to think deeply and create great works.

We were doomed (again). I could add several more quotes, many going back considerably further in time, showing that concern about speed, excess of information, novelty for novelty’s sake and the loss of manners, skills or knowledge have always been with us.

Back in the 18th century, Samuel Johnson complained of the excitement about innovation and how everything always had to be done in a new way. William Hazlitt hit many of these tropes in his 1825 The Spirit of the Age, seeing it marked by a love of fashion, change, and prejudice.Matthew Arnold wrote about “This strange disease of modern life, with its sick hurry, its divided aims.”

Cities, print, the novel (especially the serialised novel), steam ships, trains, telephones, magazines and more have all been held to be worrisome and probably dangerous to the well-being and tranquility of the young and impressionable. Lock up your women and servants!

They, we, society as a whole would be overwhelmed by words, lose the ability to discern good from bad, lose connections with family, lack a sense of time and distance, fail to appreciate the meaning of labour and, with that, wave goodbye to all sense of morality and value.

Making the point beautifully, is this piece in the New York Times yesterday by Tom Standage on Social Networking in the 1600s, which notes that contemporaries expressed fears about the addictive nature of the socialising that took place there. As Standage writes,

Among the first to sound the alarm, in 1677, was Anthony Wood, an Oxford academic. “Why doth solid and serious learning decline, and few or none follow it now in the University?” he asked. “Answer: Because of Coffea Houses, where they spend all their time.”

How familiar this sounds! While there may have been those who overdid the coffee and found themselves animatedly discussing and arguing over the news of the day to the detriment of their studies and businesses, others made vital connections with people and ideas.

There is nothing so old as warnings about modernity.

Rebekah can be found on Twitter @beckyfh losing track of time, ignoring her family and failing to meet her deadlines

Will David Cameron’s ‘Longitude Prize’ for innovation achieve its aim?

Cross-posted from The H Word blog, where this post first appeared on 14 June 2013.

Detail of John Harrison's H3 sea clock

Today we will hear from the prime minister, David Cameron, about the launch of a new “Longitude Prize”. The £1m top prize is, he will say, intended to help the search “for the next penicillin, aeroplane or world wide web”, according to the BBC report. Lord Rees, the current Astronomer Royal, will head a “Longitude Committee” to judge ideas.

It seems likely that, as we hear more about the design of the competition, the foci of the scheme will be narrowed and, I hope, that some ongoing means of aiding potential competitors will be brought in. We, and they, should recall that the original Longitude Prize was focused on one very specific problem with a number of understood technical challenges. In addition, as I have written elsewhere, John Harrison’s timekeepers would not have been produced without long-term financial investment. A prize is not enough.

Nevertheless, the public face of this project is interesting so far for its hugely wide range. Part of the competition seems to be coming up with a good challenge: what is it we actually want to have solved? Cameron will be asking, “What is the biggest challenge the world faces in the coming years, and how do we solve it?”. The other key theme, of course, is the very obvious connection with the longitude story.

The timing of the prize coincides with the tercentenary of the first Longitude Act next year. I assume that Cameron and Rees would like to have their problem defined and perhaps solved rather quicker that the century it took for the astronomical and timekeeping longitude solutions to become “practicable and useful at sea” – the demand of the 1714 Act.

As I have written elsewhere, though, there was no such thing as the Longitude Prize, and the Longitude Act may actually have had very little effect in speeding up the process of innovation. The history of longitude suggests that new ideas and technologies depend on communities of educated and/or skilled people, on the ability to share and discuss ideas, the possibility of making use of others’ skills and sufficient time and funding for research and development. New products either need a ready market or they must be supported and subsidised.

Nevertheless, as one of the team researching the history of the Board of Longitude, I am fascinated by the notion that a new Longitude Committee will be formed. Having the Astronomer Royal on board is entirely appropriate. All the Astronomers Royal between the 1714 Act and the closure of the Board in 1828 were key individuals for longitude projects to approach. All were ex officio Commissioners of Longitude and some, most especially Nevil Maskelyne, were essential drivers for all the Board’s activity.

For most of the Board of Longitude’s existence the most active members beyond the Astronomer Royal were the President of the Royal Society, the Oxbridge (later also London) professors of astronomy and mathematics, the First Lord and Secretaries of the Admiralty. Late in its life, after the penultimate in a long line of additional Longitude Acts was passed in 1818, there was an attempt to transform the Board into a scientific advisory committee, including paid positions for six advisers, three of whom were chosen from among the Fellows of the Royal Society. For more technical and practical knowledge, expert instrument makers and practical seamen might also be called as committee members or witnesses.

Who, apart from Lord Rees, will be included in the new committee? And what might a comparison of the Board then with the Committee today tell us about where authority and expertise – or good PR – rest today?

Books and history of science: my interview on Riffle History

In case anyone is interested, there is an interview with me up at Riffle History, from the Riffle Books site, in which I say a bit about my current and former book projects, and have also recommended five books for people interested in getting into history of science. Anyone who wants more recommendations should check out my earlier posts, and the comments, on Good, popular history of science and Good, popular history of science II.

It’s always a topic I’m interested in, so let me know what good, popular history of science you’ve read since those posts went up way back in 2010.

Picturing science: Mapping the moon

A reproduction of a lunar map by H. Percy Wilkins, a “proto-Patrick Moore”, is on display at the National Maritime Museum. It makes an interesting side-show to the new major exhibition, Visions of the Universe. [Cross-posted from The H Word blog.]

Map of the Moon by H. Percy Wilkins

Sheet from 1951 ed. of Wilkins’ Map of the Moon. Source: National Maritime Museum

Given my recurring Picturing Science posts in this blog, I can’t avoid mentioning the new exhibition that has opened at the National Maritime Museum, Visions of the Universe. (Full disclosure: I have not been involved with this exhibition at all.) It has been getting some really nice reviews and previews, and anyone with an interest in astronomy or photography should make the trip.

Visions of the Universe exhibition at the National Maritime Museum

In this post, though, I want to highlight something else that is currently on view, within the main (free) museum. While the exhibition showcases what the space age has brought us, with extraordinary Hubble-type images and – the real hit, I think – a 13-metre long Mars Window, this other display offers the clearest possible reminder of how recently it is that any of this became possible.

In the NMM’s Compass Lounge (at the rear left of the Museum’s new entrance foyer), the several sheets of a 1951 map of the moon have been photographed and reproduced to show the complete 300-inch chart. It shows an extraordinary level of hand-drawn detail, achieved by its maker, H. Percy Wilkins (1896-1960), with the aid of distinctly earth-bound telescopes.

This map, versions of which he had been working on since the 1920s, was the largest-scale and most detailed of its time, combining Wilkins’ personal observations with data from the drawings, photographs and measurements of other astronomers. As his Wikipedia entry says, it was “considered by some as the culmination of the art of selenography prior to the space age”. Wilkins himself described it as “the World’s greatest Moon Map”.

The map was also, perhaps, one of the last productions of its kind. Not only was it published just on the cusp of the space age, but it was also the project of an amateur, working from his home near Bexleyheath with a 12½-inch, and later a 15½-inch, reflector. Wilkins did the work in his spare time, being employed first as a mechanical engineer and then a civil servant at the Ministry of Supply.

Title page of Wilkins' Map of the Moon

The title page of Wilkins’ Map of the Moon. Source: National Maritime Museum

Wilkins nevertheless found time to make telescopes, publish several works on popular astronomy and act as director of the British Astronomical Association’s Lunar Section. As well as founding the Section’s periodical The Moon, he was also, late in life, the first president of the International Lunar Society.

Two of Wilkins’ books were co-authored with another selenographic authority, Patrick Moore, to whom the Visions of the Universe exhibition is dedicated. I found online a reminiscence of Wilkins by an acquaintance describing him as a “proto-Patrick Moore”, but he was perhaps also a direct inspiration. In an obituary of his colleague, Moore wrote of the “prodigious amount of work” that went into the mapping project but, also, that “his personal enthusiasm was inspiring”. Moore felt a “deep sense of personal loss”.

Wilkins did not quite become the media star that Moore did, but he made “numerous broadcasts and television appearances”. You can, for example, see him (his telescope, his map, and his daughter) here in a 1953 Pathé newsreel. Somewhat more infamously, he made the news in 1954 when he announced his observation of “the most extraordinary feature known on the moon today”.

This was a curved shadow, already spotted and described as bridge-like by an American astronomer, John J. O’Neill. It was reported as a 20-mile arch, which can be seen clearly in the photographs reproduced in one of the newspaper reports, viewable at the bottom of the page here. It was, however, no more than a trick of the light, rather like the Face on Mars.

The episode seems to have damaged his credibility considerable and may be one of the reasons that he is less than well-remembered today. Part of the problem was that Wilkins spoke to the press and on the radio before submitting his, rather more cautious, observations to peer scrutiny, His case was not aided by his initially appearing to hint that the structure could be evidence of life on the moon: phrases like “looks artificial” and “almost like an engineering job” led some to leap to such conclusions, even if they were simply descriptive.

The “bridge” was not included in Wilkins’ map, although it did incorporate some other erroneous details. Nevertheless, NASA purchased at least one, and possibly several, copies of the reduced reproduction of his lunar chart when preparing for the Apollo moon landings. His map was also used to help match up the first photographs of the far side of the moon, produced by a Lunar 3 in 1959, with features visible from Earth.

As well as the originals of three editions of the maps themselves, the Museum also received a number of notebooks, all kindly donated by Wilkins’ daughter. The notebooks include formulae, photographs, newspaper cuttings, original drawings and observational notes, from Wilkins’ Kentish observatory and visits to professional observatories in France and the US. They are testament to his years of dedicated work.

When you go (as you must) to see the images, the ingenuity and the leaps that have been made in professional and amateur astronomical imaging on display in the major exhibition, do also remember to pop over to see “the World’s greatest Moon Map”.

Big, better, best? The Manchester Congress takes history of science to the next level

Cross-posted from The H Word blog, where this post first appeared 9 May 2013, a couple of months ahead of this summer’s International Congress for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine.


Jodrell Bank observatory, near Manchester

Back in November I blogged about the unique gathering that will be taking place this July in Manchester. It is now confirmed that the International Congress of History of Science Technology and Medicine(ICHSTM) will be the largest ever meeting of scholars in the field.

The topic, “Knowledge at work”, is intentionally inclusive. It has broughtthe organisers over 1,600 individual papers, presented within 434 themed sessions. More than 1,800 participants are expected. While this is peanuts for some supermassive science, technology or industry conferences, it is huge for HSTM.

ICHSTM includes symposia organised by a number of commissions that sit within the Division of History of Science and Technology of the International Union for the History and Philosophy of Science (IUHPS/DHST). They give a good indication of the breadth and diversity of the academic programme, including Ancient and Medieval Astronomy, modern Chemistry and PhysicsEast AsiaIslamic Societies and thePacific CircleMeteorologyOceanographyMathematics and Scientific InstrumentsBibliographyHistory of Technology, and Gender Studies.

On top of these symposia, and those from other learned societies in the field, are sessions organised by individuals. These are equally varied, and no list on a short post can really do justice to the range of topics and historical periods that will be considered by a very international set of speakers. It will be impossible for individual conference attendees to take in more than a fraction of the sessions and, indeed, of the extra-curricular events and trips. Getting a sense of the state of HSTM as an international field will necessarily be an impressionistic business.

There will, however, also be a strong British flavour to the Congress, with local sights, history and culture there to be taken advantage of. In addition, several of the special sessions speak to current hot topics that, although of undoubted importance in other countries, have been of particular concern to academics in the UK. For example, although details are not yet finalised, issues such as scholarly publishing, the PhD process and the academic jobs market will be under discussion.

One area that, it seems to me, is receiving particular attention at this Congress is the relationship between academic history of science and other disciplines, audiences, users and interested groups. This trend may be underscored by the Impact agenda and a sense that public funding needs to be justified, but it is clear that many historians of science neither feel that they can, nor want to, sit in ivory towers.

Several events surrounding the Congress are intended to explore history of science in other formats, such as music and theatre, and/or to reach a wider public. As well as performances, and an event recreating how science has been performed to the public in the past, the Congress will host a public lecture by the winner of the BSHS’s Dingle Prize, awarded biannually to the author of a book on the history of science, technology and medicine aimed at a general audience.

Among the 31 thematic strands identified by the Congress’s organisers, the ones on “Science communication and education”, and on “Museums and heritage” look particularly full and exiting. Symposia in these themes include Science, technology and medicine in the public sphereMedicine in the mediaResearch in science museums and Science and technology museums in context.

The role of social media in public engagement is the focus of a special session that I have organised. I am particularly pleased that, through discussion on Twitter, I managed to create a session that opens the meeting up, both in terms of location and discipline. We will be linking with the Science in Public conference, which happens to be taking place simultaneously in Nottingham, and, since the session will be taking place in virtual space, there can also be contributions from speakers, and perhaps discussants, who have not managed to travel to Manchester.

This interest in reaching and hearing from beyond our usual audiences is also evident in this blog. As in the first post by Jamie Stark, some of the attendees will be posting introductions to their papers. As well as advertising their session (and lets face it, every session will have plentiful and stiff competition!), it is hoped that the blog will create a greater profile for the Congress, generate interest in the field and help start the conversation before delegates even begin to gather.

During and after the meeting, the ICHSTM website will host videos, interviews, and recordings of selected papers. Already up and running are the Twitter account (@ichstm2013) and Facebook page. Although this will be the largest ever gathering of historians of science, technology and medicine, we are greedy enough to want to pull in even more people, and for more than just one week in the summer.

I first tweeted from a history of science conference in 2010. There were precious few professional historians of science on Twitter to join us online, although it meant that I found there were other people interested to hear what we were saying in our conference halls and seminar rooms. This Congress will be a whole new experience: there will be live tweeting, live feeds and session recordings galore. It is, perhaps, a coming of age for history of science, at least in terms of social media.

This was also cross-posted on the ICHSTM blog, which you should take a look at to see posts on many of the papers given and events that took place in Manchester during the Congress. The recording of the Google Hangout used for the Social Media and Public Engagement Manchester-Nottingham-USA link-up can be found among the videos here (start at 01:44).

Advising government: did Isaac Newton get it wrong?

Cross-posted from The H Word blog.

Just as today, governments past took advice about science. Isaac Newton gave evidence on solving the longitude problem. Was his advice as counter-productive as many have said?

Isaac Newton

There have been a lot of posts lately in the Guardian Science blogs about the role of the new chief scientific adviser, Mark Walport. While finding myself in the novel position of attempting to offer some thoughts to this incoming chief, I have also been co-writing a book about the search for longitude at sea, much of which revolves around issues of the relationships between skill, expertise, government and the public.

It turns out, of course, that advisers to government have often drawn flack, usually from those who stood to lose out financially as a result of their advice. Sometimes, though, that criticism comes as a result of hindsight. Given posterity’s tendency to condescend, that criticism is not always fair.

When the first Longitude Act was passed in 1714, the Walport equivalent was Isaac Newton. Although most often thought of as a solitary genius with apples falling on his head in Lincolnshire or writing an incomprehensible but revolutionary book in Cambridge, Newton was also to be an MP, Master of the Mint, President of the Royal Society and adviser to government.

When parliament considered a petition that asked for rewards to be offered to those who could help solve the problem of finding longitude at sea, Newton’s evidence was very clearly incorporated into the Act as written. As, thereafter, an ex officio Commissioner of Longitude, Newton also became one of those who judged submitted ideas and advised on whether they might be worth supporting.

It has become common to blame Newton for deflecting the commissioners and British government from what has been judged as the “correct” path to a successful outcome. It has been suggested that Newton was naturally biased to favour astronomical solutions and had little time for or interest in clocks as the way forward.

It seems clear that Newton did think that astronomical methods would – at some point – provide a successful solution. He believed that his evidence about their potential accuracy was reflected in the several levels of reward offered in the 1714 Act. In addition, the fact that the Act indicates that a reward might be payable after a single successful trial may show an assumption that the answer would lie in something universally applicable, like astronomy, rather than a machine.

Usually seen as most damning is the fact that Newton stated several times that longitude was not to be found by clockwork. He also suggested that clocks put forward for reward should be examined and trialled by others before the commissioners need meet to consider them.

Such facts have led some to declare that “even Newton could get it wrong”. Such a view has been put forward in histories of longitude and, unsurprisingly, by those writing the biography of John Harrison, whose disputes with the commissioners and well-rewarded sea clocks are well known. However, it has also been stated in Richard S Westfall’s biography of Newton that (p. 837)

His deprecation of clocks may have helped later to delay the acceptance of Harrison’s chronometers [sic], which did in fact offer a practical determination of longitude at sea.

Leaving aside the fact that Harrison’s unique watch left the British public a long way from possessing a practical solution, is it fair to say that Newton was prejudiced against clocks and retarded the putting of government funds into this method? Nope. Not really.

Firstly, Newton was dead right that longitude “is not to be found by Clockwork alone”, so long as astronomical methods were the only way of checking that an on-board clock was behaving itself.* As he said, a clock might be able to keep track of longitude but, should the clock stop or become erratic, only astronomy could help find longitude again. This essentially remained true until wireless radio signals could be used to compare a ship’s local time (determined astronomically) with a broadcast reference time.

Newton was also not so prejudiced against clocks that he did not wish to be bothered by applications from their makers, or at least no more than he was by any other such applications. In the case of astronomical methods, too, he advised that they be examined by other experts before being presented to the commissioners.

We also know that, several years earlier, Newton had been interested in Henry Sully‘s ideas for making a longitude timekeeper – something he went on to do in the 1720s – and had encouraged him, even passing on information about another horological novelty that he had come across.

Newton certainly could be wrong – I am sure that everyone can think of a few examples – but not really about this.

The difference in longitude between two places is equivalent to the difference in local time.

Picturing science: inside a Georgian observatory

Cross-posted from The H Word blog.

Detail of Shirburn Castle Observatory

Detail of engraving of the observers at Shirburn Castle Observatory. Source: National Maritime Museum


I only recently, and by accident came across this rather delightful 1778 mezzotint by James Watson among the collections of the National Maritime Museum. It was a somewhat hidden gem, having not been fully catalogued, although there are copies to be found elsewhere.

I have now updated the description, having realised that the full imageshows two servants-cum astronomical assistants of George Parker, 2nd Earl of Macclesfield (c.1696-1764). They are depicted in his private and exemplary observatory at Shirburn Castle, erected in about 1739.

In the detail at the top of this post is Thomas Phelps, then aged 82, and with him (see below) is John Bartlett, then aged 54. Most of what we know about them is what appears in the text given within this engraving. It is a tale of common men made good, thanks to natural ability, hard work, access to books and recognition by their superiors.

Detail of Shirburn Castle Observatory

Phelps, “who from being a stable-boy in the year 1718, to the then Lord Chief Justice Parker, afterwards Earl of Macclesfield, rose by his merit to the upper employments in that family, and at last, for his uncommon genius, was promoted to be observer, in their Observatory”. John Bartlett was “originally a shepherd, in which station he by books and observation acquired such a knowledge in computation, and of the heavenly bodies, as induced the late George, Earl of Macclesfield, to appoint him assistant observer in his Observatory”.

Phelps and Bartlett are shown in the observatory’s transit room, with Phelps at the eye-piece of the 5-foot transit telescope, made byJonathan Sisson. This instrument is fixed to supporting pillars and aligned to the meridian in order ensure the accuracy of repeated positional measurements of the heavenly bodies.

Behind Bartlett is an astronomical regulator, an accurate observatory clock, by George Graham. To the left is an equatorially-mounted telescope, probably by John Dollond, These were tip-top London instrument makers. Macclesfield spared no expense to create an observatory that, with a salaried observer and assistant, rivalled or, indeed, trumped the establishment at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich.

Macclesfield was a remarkable individual. He was instructed in mathematics by Abraham De Moivre and William Jones, and the sciences became his passion. Under Jones’s influence he formed an exceptionallyimportant collection of 17th-century mathematical manuscripts andbooks. He erected his observatory with the assistance of James Bradley, then Savilian Professor of astronomy at Oxford and later Astronomer Royal. He also built a chemical laboratory, in which his observer, Thomas Phelps also assisted.

Macclesfield was, as well as being an MP, President of the Royal Society for 12 years, from 1752 until his death. From both positions he was a principal proponent of the adoption of the Gregorian calendar. His son, Thomas Parker, 3rd Earl of Macclesfield, was also elected FRS, and evidently kept the observatory going, under Phelps and Bartlett, joined in about 1776 by someone called Redding. Regular observations seem to have ceased in the 1790s.

This engraving is a remarkable celebration of two relatively unknown individuals who, otherwise, survive only in the manuscript observations. It is relatively rare, before the advent of photography, that we see images of people engaged in the activity of astronomical observation. It is also rare to see the assistants, rather than the owner of such fine instruments.

The engraving is, of course, also a celebration of those instruments, which were still impressive in the 1770s. In addition to the telescopes and clock, core tools of the well-quipped working observatory, is a celestial globe. This plays a iconographic rather than a practical function, and is unlikely to have been placed in the observatory itself.

Detail of Shirburn Castle Observatory

However, perhaps my favourite part of the image depicts some rather more humble, but no less essential, aspects of observatory equipment. They are a ratcheted, adjustable observing chair, against which Phelps leans, and the pen and paper with which Bartlett notes the time on the clock at the moment that Phelps calls a star as crossing the meridian of the telescope.

Detail of observing chair in Shirburn Castle observatory

These ordinary things – a chair and writing materials – remind us that the work of these observers was not simple star-gazing but, even in this private observatory, something precise, regular, regulated and tiring. It was the hard work of making and recording observations with an eye to posterity.