Cross-posted from The H Word blog.
Poised at my computer last night [6 August 2013], I listened to, and eagerly typed notes on the first episode of a new series on BBC Radio 4 that looks at the history of British science. Presented by Lisa Jardine, it will present Seven Ages of Science, kicking off with an Age of Ingenuity in Restoration England.
Much of the episode centred on Jardine’s “personal hero”, Robert Hooke, and argues that the ingenuity, interest and development of new explanations of the workings of nature that arose in the late 17th century came out of the thriving world of machines and instruments, centred on London’s west end.
Those who know Jardine’s work won’t be surprised that the episode opened at the Monument in London. It was Hooke and Christopher Wren’s memorial to the Great Fire of London, a statement of confidence that London would be rebuilt and thrive again and, as Jardine says, “a super-size scientific instrument”. It symbolised their belief that experimental science would lead to a renaissance of city and nation.
The Monument was to be a place for experiments with pendulums and a tube for a giant zenith telescope. While it wasn’t successful, Hooke spent a lifetime collaborating with makers and artisans to contrive instruments and experiments that would entertain the gentlemen of the Royal Society, pick apart the mechanisms of God’s creation and prove useful to mankind.
While Hooke and then Newton receive the main focus in this episode, the point is several times well-made that not only did artisans provide the tools and metaphors they adopted in the new experimental philosophy, but that they and a whole range of less well-known practical observers and mathematicians were vital collaborators. Newton’s faux-modest puff about “standing on the shoulders of giants” hid the fact that his work was absolutely dependent on a large network of other individuals.
There are, as Jardine says, no lone scientific heroes and eureka moments here. Newton’s apple story “could not be further from the truth”. The focus of the series is on weaving science back into the world rather than allowing it to be viewed apart from everyday life. The point is that scientists were/are “nurtured by the world in which they lived” and, rather than how science changed the world, the series will highlight how the world changed science.
This is history of science by (and I sincerely hope not just for) historians of science, featuring Simon Schaffer, Felicity Henderson, Patricia Faraand Jim Bennett as well as Jardine. We have the clock-maker Thomas Tompion standing alongside Hooke, observation alongside theory, technology advancing science, entertainment of the wealthy as an essential element of the development of experiment, and politics shaping ideas.
All of this comes as a welcome relief – nay a deep draught of pure water from the deepest well – to this historian of science. In a guest post on my other blog today, John van Wyhe, an expert on Darwin and Wallace, explains what can happen to programmes on the history of science when delivered (and researched) by scientists and non-specialists. They all too often are. For every Schaffer Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams, we have series on the history of science presented byphysicists, mathematicians and biologists.
This is not to say that they all do a rotten job, nor that they might not be interested in and sensitive to history as well as science, but it tends to shape the basic arc of the programme’s narrative. It becomes, almost inevitably, a looking back from present to past that picks out the route by which ideas arrived at those we have today.
While I appreciate that there may not be enough historians of science out there with the talent and charisma to present on TV (though we know Schaffer does and Henderson, Fara, Bennett and Jardine could all, I suspect, take on more than radio or TV talking head roles), the history in history of science programming should be taken seriously more often.
Rather than the narrative always being about someone who knows the science finding out about where it came from in the past, why not (if you really can’t find an historian of science) shape it around an historian who knows the period finding out about the science?
I hope that Seven Ages of Science will help change assumptions about how history of science can be made interesting and what narratives it encompasses. I’ll be interested to see how far the “Seven Ages” conform to or challenge expectations. So far it sticks to the expected by not, for example, including the medieval world. I also wondered about the statements of this “Age” being particularly ingenious or moving particularly fast: I suspect any age could seem like that to those who were there or those who study it more closely than others.
Choices have to be made, of course, and this is a history of British science from the 17th century. It is the bread and butter of our discipline, and I am delighted that a wider audience is getting a chance to taste this wholesome fare.