A conversation about science and progress

A couple of evenings ago an interesting conversation developed on twitter, between me (@beckyfh), Thomas Soderqvist (@museionist), Thony Christie (@rmathematicus), James Poskett (@jamesposkett) on science and progress. It all started with a query from Danny Birchall:

When I asked for more details he told me that the exhibition was “about material culture of the brain; context is faux-measurement of brain capacity/function. shd definitely explain racism (tweet). After another couple of tweets, Danny wrote “I think what I’m trying to ask (in the abstract) is, is it useful in histsci to show … (tweet) … how ideas that we now find repellent are intimately intertwined with the ‘progress’ of science? (tweet). I replied:

At this point Thomas entered the conversation:

And thus the conversation was kicked off. Apologies if I’ve missed out any important tweets from the conversation below, and for it getting confusing where parallel discussions developed. I’ve had to play with the order a bit to make these make sense.

James and I had a bit of a side conversation, on the subject of whether there’s a simplistic popular notion of scientific progress, even if the subject is a bit passe in scholarly circles:

That was more or less it for the night. Thomas had long left us for a book and bed. However, bright and early the next morning:

I hazarded the following:

Thony agreed, but there we left it. So: what do we mean by progress in science? Is there a simplistic view of progress that exists generally, and is it worthwhile trying to point out that the picture is a great deal more complex? Did historians of science in the 1970s-90s really believe that there was no such thing as progress in science? Do some still believe it now? How should we deal with progress in science as opposed to progress in technology?

Answers below, please.

Wanting to believe

Sometimes, the extent to which people see what they wish to see seems truly remarkable. However, we shouldn’t be surprised that this very human affliction affects even those with a training or long practice in observation and logic. An article in the Observer this Sunday discussed one of the more famous cases of a forgery convincing those who wanted to be convinced. This was the 1912 archaeological hoax known as Piltdown Man, which seems to have been accepted as genuine by a number of experts largely because they really wanted to be able to put both British archaeology and early British inhabitants on the map. A remarkable, unique find that suggested that early British man had a larger brain than the Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals currently being found to international acclaim on the Continent was, perhaps, too good a story to resist.

Piltdown Man was accepted as a genuine specimen for 40 years, despite the fact that when the finds were first published one individual suggested that it looked rather like a modern human skull with a chimpanzee jawbone. When it was reviewed again in the 1950s it looked like a pretty cheap and obvious forgery. It seems that a lack of relevant expertise in Britain at the time, perhaps together with an unarticulated desire not to ask too many questions and, possibly, even some conspiracy amongst museum curators led to this collective turning of blind eyes. The Natural History Museum and Southampton University will now carrying out research to find out more about the creation of the hoax, just in time for its centenary.

File:Michel Chasles.jpg

At least the hoaxed were in it together on this occasion. Some time back I wrote about a history of science forgery that fooled only one individual: an eminent man who perhaps should have known better but who wanted to believe, then wanted to believe that he had not been taken advantage of, then finally had to reveal that he had spent large sums of money and staked his reputation on an elaborate, but surely unconvincing series of forged documents. This was Michel Chasles, professor of geometry at the Sorbonne and early expert in the history of mathematics (and, judging by this picture, alarming-looking individual), who collected old mathematical texts and manuscripts but, with one rogue dealer, got out of his depth.

Chasles brought the first of his astonishing finds to the Académie française, and they were published in the institution’s journal, Comptes rendus. They were a number of notes and letters addressed to Robert Boyle and signed ‘Pascal’. They immediately provoked intense criticism but were, for two years, staunchly defended by Chasles, who produced more and more letters to back up an unlikely story. An increasingly complex alternative reality in the history of science was being developed, in which Pascal had discovered gravity, having previously been in communication with Galileo, who had only feigned blindness to get better treatment from the Inquisition. It was a French nationalist illusion then ended up including letters purportedly from a bewildering variety of individuals. At home, it turned out, Chasles had letters from not only the whole history of science, but also French royalty, Cleopatra, Mary Magdalene and Joan of Arc.

It can all be read about in Henri Leonard Bordier and Emile Mabille, Une Fabrique de Faux Autographes, Paris, 1870 (published in English as The Prince of Forgers), who explained that Chasles was “naturally imbued with the desire to prove a thesis, [and] saw only that which agreed with his argument”. The forger, Vrain-Denis Lucas, who was sentenced to two years in prison with the words “You have abused in the most brazen manner the passion of an old man, of a scholar, his passion as a collector and his love for his country, in order to deceive him shamefully”. Lucas should have top marks for effort, a B+ for locating sources, and a C- for palaeography: this image compares a Lucas ‘Pascal’ document with a genuine manuscript.

The episode is particularly fascinating when we look at how scholars tried to prove Chasles wrong. Like palaeontology in the early 20th century, in the 19th century the serious study of historical documents, especially scientific manuscripts, was still in relative infancy. The scientific minds of the Académie tried ink testing, but the results actually turned out to back Chasles. Others considered handwriting, but this was tricky in a period when access to original material for comparison was difficult, and there were few photographs or facsimiles. This, therefore, left the content, but this required a sophisticated knowledge of the genuine source material. It was a challenge to the relatively few individuals who, at this period, might be considered historians of science.

A pretty unambiguous approach was taken by the Glasgow professor of astronomy, and author of History of the Physical Sciences, Robert Grant, who showed that the dataset in the spurious letter post-dated the real Pascal. David Brewster, biographer of Newton, focused on rescuing his hero’s reputation, working from his detailed knowledge of the archive. Thomas Archer Hirst spotted passages copied directly from later publications. Augustus De Morgan, as was his wont, had fun spotting a range of entertaining and obscure historical errors. These, together with the challenges put forward in Paris from Prosper Faugère and Urbain Le Verrier, and the facsimiles created by Bordier and Mabille, were conclusive, and lessons were learned in the scholarly and bibliographic world – we hope.

The story is not quite complete, though: a final, interesting twist has just come to my notice. Back in 2004, Ken Alder published “History’s Greatest Forger: Science, Fiction, and Fraud along the Seine” in the journal Critical Inquiry. In this he writes: “Last year, while on academic leave in France, I discovered a letter in a Paris archive…”. This was a letter from the forger Lucas, explaining his motivation, translated by Alder. Today, I noticed that the Wikipedia articles for Lucas and Chasles both refer to this “recently uncovered” letter.

At the time that this article appeared, Alder had begun researching his book The Lie Detectors (2007). Read the Lucas letter, and have a think for yourself, noting that it ends with a quotation from Oscar Wilde:

After all, what is a fine lie? Simply that which is its own evidence. If a man is sufficiently unimaginative to produce evidence in support of a lie, he might just as well speak the truth at once.


Creative, historical (non-)fiction

On Tuesday I just missed joining a twitter discussion/interview with Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, hosted by Misha Angrist, on the topic of creative non-fiction writing #creativenf. You can see how the discussion played out here, posted by Ruth Seeley, and in this post by Grant Jacobs. As well as being fascinating in terms of the amount of time, determination and persistence Skloot required to get the research, writing and publication completed, it gives an interesting insight into what is “creative” about creative non-fiction.

In this piece, for the Library Journal, Skloot described how it was the little things – details about location, shoe colour, patterns of speech – that librarians or archivists might have collected which helped her bring her history to life. A historian of the home or consumerism might well pay attention to such details, but the “creativity” comes, I suppose, with the decision to apply them to a history of something else and – more controversially to the historian – to a different time, place or person. Dr X may well have worn brown shoes on the one day that anyone thought to note them. What we might never know is that he wore black every other day of his life, including the one depicted in your book.

This brings me to think about historical fiction, a topic about which there is, I discover, a great deal of information on ‘tinterweb. I liked this on ‘The art of lying in historical fiction‘ from 2010 in the Guardian, note the Reading the Past blog, and many ‘how to’ sites. There are, evidently, a large number of people interested in trying their hand at historical fiction which, given the evident dangers, I find intriguing. There are, of course, historians who write historical fiction, but I feel particularly wary of the genre. I fictionalise and misrepresent the past badly enough every time I write ‘proper’ history; the idea of adding genuine fiction scares me silly – although, who knows, if I started, perhaps I would feel enormously liberated.

[I did have a hankering, while doing my PhD, to write something about my favourite subject, Augustus De Morgan and his intelligent and table-turning wife, Sophia. I would have plotted something around a séance in which they appear to come across the spirit of Newton and, of course, his niece Catherine Barton. Would De Morgan’s view of Newton as personally flawed but morally pure, and his thesis that Catherine had been privately married to the Earl of Halifax, stand up to this encounter, or would the spirits (his subconscious?) reveal something much more morally repugnant?]

Sensibly, I think, I decided that this was not for me and that I should, particularly, stay away from fictionalising real historical figures. To make an interesting story, I’d have had to say all sorts of things about Augustus and Sophia, and their relationship, for which there is little or no evidence. I would have blushed every time I looked into the eye (he had only one) of his bust at the catalogue terminals of Senate House Library.

Given these sensibilities, what of reading historical fiction? Do historians tend to enjoy it (if well done) or avoid it? Do they, perhaps, avoid tales set in their own period, while revelling in those set in another?  I have, in fact, loved much literary historical fiction, including that set in the 19th-century. AS Byatt’s Possession is a favourite, and I also enjoyed The Children’s Book. I am currently enjoying Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America and thought one of the shortlist Best of the Booker, J.G. Farrell’s 1973 The Siege of Krishnapur was brilliant. Several speak to themes of science, technology and their relationship to daily life, the experience of modernity and relationship with religion or with art. But what of novels that link very directly to history of science? Perhaps in another post I’ll start compiling a list of history of science novels, as I did with history of science on stage. (Byatt’s Angels and Insects comes to mind, Iain Pears, An Instance of the Fingerpost, not a few other novels in which Newton appears as a character.) I have not read that many, though, always wary that my knowledge and views will interfere with my straightforward enjoyment of the book.

Recently, though, I read a novel that hit my period and field. This was Christina Koning’s Variable Stars, “a story”, the blurb tells us, “of love and astronomy; music and silence; secrets and truth-telling; of world-changing discoveries, and unrequited desire”. It features the astronomers Caroline and William Herschel, Edward Pigott and John Goodricke. The title reflects the work that Pigott and Goodricke collaborated on, in observing the periodic variation of certain stars, and nods to the idea of the vagaries of the human heart. As it turns out, while some of the stars are indeed variable in their brightness, the characters are extraordinarily (and, for me, unrealistically) tenacious in their sentiments.

The novel fantises unrequited love affairs among these characters, and the existence of a Pigott sibling (a MathurinaPigott was born, presumably dying young, as nothing else is known of her), but there is much that is close to the historical record. Indeed, there are letters and papers that are quoted directly – mainly this is how Koning deals with “the science bit” and I was not convinced that she had a very clear sense of the context of and motivations behind the various astronomical projects included in the book.

As Koning writes in an afterword, “I have speculated least where most is known, an allowed myself the license of invention where little or no documentary evidence exists”. Sensible, perhaps, but it means that those familiar with the William and Caroline story get a strong sense of deja vu. I read Richard Holmes’s Age of Wonder recently, and was struck by the similarity of the characters that emerged and the episodes recorded (probably, in both cases, relying on the work of Michael Hoskin). I did enjoy the child’s-eye view of Hanover, presumably also deriving from Caroline’s own accounts, but less familiar to me.

The treatment of the childhood of John Goodricke (left), and the onset of his deafness, also appealed to me. Koning can write vividly and affectingly, but I think these sections worked for me because they avoided the rather over-blown emotions that are the constant theme of the adult lives (you can probably tell that I am not a reader or Romance fiction).

Koning has worked hard with her research: there are relatively few errors of fact, although I picked up a few mistakes (e.g. there is some inconsistency about when the Herschels started working with the 20-foot telescope – it certainly wasn’t planned in 1774 as suggested on p. 29 – and it is wrong to say the transit telescope at Greenwich was in the Octagon Room, as on p. 153). There are occasionally rather clunky bits of exposition, working on quite a different register to the moments of passion that the historical record did not (could not) have recorded. However, these undoubtedly leap out at me in a way they would not with another reader. It was good to be introduced to Pigott and Goodricke, who I hadn’t previously come across, although I had heard of Edward’s father Nathaniel Pigott, who had a large private observatory and was a correspondent of Nevil Maskelyne’s colleague, Robert Waddington.

Caroline Herschel has clear appeal to novelists as well as historians. Goodricke – brilliant, deaf and died young – has the elements of a tantalising romantic figure, too good for a creative writer to resist. For me, of course, so much of this history is too good to mess with. Write me a new character, please, and don’t make me worry about how the real Goodricke might have felt about being portrayed as lover and beloved first, and astronomer second.

Ploughing with historical heifers

My previous post ended with a quote by Augustus De Morgan and it was such a good one that I make no apologies for quoting him again, this time from an 1846 biography of Newton, which you can find transcribed online here. In attempting to assess Newton’s contribution to science, and the importance of his Principia, De Morgan writes:

it is difficult to put before the ordinary reader, even if he be a mathematician, a distinct view of the merit of any step in the formation of a system. Unless he be acquainted with the history of preceding efforts, he comes to the consideration of that merit from the wrong direction; for he reads the history from the end. He goes to the mail-coach, back from the railroad instead of forward from the old strings of pack-horses: from a macadamized road lighted with gas to the rough stones and the oil-lamps, instead of beginning with the mud and the link-boys.

As well as giving a wonderful sense of 1840s modernity, this reads to me very like a condemation of presentist history of science and, while it may still be a little linear and ‘whiggish’ (but, hey, ADM was a Whig!), it is a nice call for making sure old ideas are read in their right context. As he elsewhere wrote, in a letter to William Rowan Hamilton, “In reading an old mathematicain you will not read his riddle unless you plough with his heifer; you must see with his light if you want to know how much he saw”.

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