Cosmos and Giordano Bruno: the problem with scientific heroes

Cross-posted from The H Word blog.


Statue of Giordano Bruno, erected at Campo de' Fiori in Rome, 1889.
Statue of Giordano Bruno, erected at Campo de’ Fiori in Rome, 1889.

Although it’s not as big news in the UK as it has been in the US, readers of the Guardian science pages may have noticed that Carl Sagan’s classic series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage is being remade by Fox and presented by Neil deGrasse Tyson as Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.

Broadcast in the US last Sunday, I saw a lot of love being expressed on my Twitter timeline. However, it has also prompted some interesting comments from historians of science. We in the UK can see it for ourselves this Sunday (if we have access to the right channels), but here are some articles and posts that give food for thought.

In The Atlantic, Audra Wolfe looked at the Cold War context in which the original Cosmos succeeded, or could, at least, be credited by many with having kicked off a decade-long “popular science boom”. What the Cosmos effect actually was does not seem to have been measured but, even if real, Wolfe points out that times have changed. She argues that Cosmos Can’t Save Public Support for Science today, particularly if it is “weigh[ed] down with Cold War-era fantasies that confuse the public understanding of science with its appreciation.”

Other historians have been prompted to comment on Cosmos because, as in the original, history of science is part of the package. Much has been said about the importance the remake, as a high-profile broadcast that can reflect the extent to which science has moved on since 1980. History of science has also moved on: is this reflected in the new series?

The answer, it seems, is yes (a bit) and (mostly) no. In the first episode, a rather hefty portion of airtime (11 out of 43 minutes) is devoted to an animation on the life of Giordano Bruno. Burnt at the stake by the Roman Inquisition in 1600, he was there to play the role of scientific hero and martyr. It is an ill-fitting part for this idiosyncratic Dominican monk.

Laudably avoiding any temptation to snark, Meg Rosenburg took the sudden interest in this reasonably obscure figure as an opportunity to help those who might Want to Know More About Giordano Bruno. While Bruno’s cosmological poetry and mystical thought included heliocentrism, he was not, of course, a scientist, nor was he sentenced to death for “scientific” ideas or anything like “the nice-mannered, doe-eyed dissenter” that appears on the screen.

In fact, Bruno is so obviously a problematic choice as a scientific martyr that several non-historians have also picked up on the issue. Corey S. Powell in Discover Magazine suggested that Cosmos picked the wrong hero, and that another – even more obscure but significantly more astronomical – early Copernican, Thomas Digges, might have been a better bet. Hank Campbell at The Federalist picked the Bruno problem as the most significant of Five Things that Cosmos Gets Wrong.

Becky Ferreira at Motherboard carefully explained What Cosmos Gets Wrong About Giordano Bruno, the Heretic Scientist, although, as she notes, it was not all bad as the account “did a pretty good job of covering its butt by shoehorning in some of Bruno’s contradictions, like the fact that he was a crappy scientist (and many historians argue he shouldn’t be considered one at all).”

Yet, nevertheless, the overriding message appears to have been about heroic passion for truth against dogma and science versus religion. And, despite the nod the nuance, this is a case of turning history into parable.

This is problematic for many reasons, one of which is that it doesn’t exactly sit well with claims to champion evidence-based knowledge. Another is that hiding parts of Bruno’s story that undermine the image of the scientific martyr plays into the hands of those who are only too pleased to highlight what might appear to be anti-religious propaganda coming from the scientific and media establishment (thanks to Rosenburg for tweeting that link).

Historical figures who lived in a very different world, very differently understood, cannot be turned into heroes who perfectly represent our values and concerns without doing serious damage to the evidence. It reminds me of one of the 19th-century men of science-cum-historians I researched, who learned this lesson the hard way.

In 1831 David Brewster published a short biography of Isaac Newton, portraying him as a hero that represented everything the author wanted to say about the moral status of science and its practitioners, and how they should be supported in late Georgian Britain. A couple of decades later he produced a much expanded biography, this time based in part on the unpublished archive. Lo and behold: Newton was a nasty piece of work, he was unorthodox in his Christian belief and he was a dedicated alchemist.

Poor Brewster! Although, as a reviewer said, he attempted to “do his best” by his hero, he was sufficiently dedicated to the evidence to “admit” the faults in public. It undermined his overriding narrative and seems to have caused him real personal anguish. Let this be a cautionary tale against those who invest too much in their heroes – and a call for some evidence-based history to help us better understand what science has been, is now and could be in the future.


Information, images and imagination: Beautiful Science exhibition explores data visualisation

Opening tomorrow [NB this post is cross-posted from The H Word, where it was first published on 20 February – the exhibition remains open until 26 May], the British Library’s Beautiful Science exhibition raises fascinating questions about the power of visualisations and how we might tell their history


Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army in the East, Florence Nightingale. London, 1858.
Florence Nightingale’s “rose diagram”, showing the Causes of Mortality in the Army in the East, 1858. Photograph: /British Library

Beautiful Science: Picturing Data, Inspiring Insight, which opens at the British Library tomorrow, is a small but thought-provoking display that looks at how scientific data has and can be visualised. Prompted by today’s interest in big data and infographics, it merges modern digital displays with historic texts and images.

Perpetual Ocean
Perpetual Ocean: Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio, 2011. Photograph: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio, 2011.

According to the exhibition’s curator, Johanna Kieniewicz, it is the British Library’s “first science exhibition”, which seems extraordinary, given the extent to which its collections can reflect the display’s theme.

However, science has often featured in the Library’s larger, more overtly historical exhibitions. Henry VIII: Man and Monarch included a section that – slightly handwavingly – indicated new approaches to knowledge and development of key areas like navigation. The current Georgians Revealed exhibition likewise has a section that notes, particularly, the new technologies, innovation and entrepreneurial spirit of the 18th century.

The Out of this World exhibition, while focusing on science fictions, nevertheless revealed a great deal about the excitement, expectations, humour and fears surrounding science and technology in a broad range of periods. Points of View dwelt on the scientific and technical, as well as artistic, development of photography. Magnificent Maps was a perfect demonstration of how travel and precision techniques create new knowledge in ways that suit different audiences

The key display artefacts in Beautiful Science are, like these other exhibitions, historical texts, charts, maps and illustrations, so we might wonder what is new. The answer, it seems, is that it is the first display to have been led by the Library’s Science and Digital teams, rather than that it displays science per se. What difference might this make?

The display items are well-chosen, and include some key examples of innovation in data collection and presentation. However, the science- rather than history-led interpretation of the 17th- to 19th-century texts is clear in the fact that their selection reflects trends and concerns of the present, rather than a concern to reveal those of the past. There is, likewise, an emphasis on progress toward ever better and more accurate approaches to data visualisation (although in a post at PLOS Blogs, Kieniewicz suggests that designers have recently stolen a march over scientists in the display of data).

The three themes of the display are Weather and Climate, Public Health and (rather less obviously) Tree of Life. The first includes Halley’s world map of trade winds, a persuasive form that masked his lack of data, and two 18th-century log books from ships of the of the East India Company. The latter are there less because they have much to say about visualising data in the past (although the recorded observations did feed into charts by Halley and others, and one of the log books includes a charming sketch of a sea bird) and more because of current climate science projects that are attempting to make current use of old data.

Such data, however, also has much to say about how 18th-century mariners saw their world and Empire, what they understood about weather or climate and what was their understanding of important things to record, which maps only poorly onto our own.

“Public Health” naturally includes John Snow’s famous map of cholera cases in London’s east end and Florence Nightingale’s “visually gripping” rose diagrams representing the effects of her sanitary reforms on mortality during the Crimean War (top). Here the power of visual data is made clear, being, above all, an extremely effective tool of persuasion for public opinion and government action.

The “Tree of Life Section” is an excuse to bring out some lovely early modern illustrations and, while it seems a bit too simplistic to connect these theological and metaphysical meditations directly to modern taxonomies and diagrams “based on scientific data and information”, we are prompted to reflect on how older views have left their mark. If a branching tree of evolutionary theory recalls a Great Chain of Being, then it is far too teleological (that is, progressive and purposeful) to represent natural selection.

The Pedigree of Man. Ernst Haeckel, The evolution of man. London, 1879.
Ernst Haeckel, The Pedigree of Man, London, 1879. Photograph: /British Library

In comparing earlier and modern taxonomies, it is interesting too to speculate on changing criteria. All systems of categorisation are to some degree unnatural, despite claims to be representing nature. Today, in a way that would have bemused earlier taxonomists, genomic data trumps visual description. Has the (family) tree analogy made this inevitable?

The British Library is the perfect institution for discussions between science, arts and the humanities to take place. While defined as a “science exhibition”, visitors to the display and participants in the accompanying events programme should be encouraged to see the aethestic and the historical in it too – just as the science of the Tudor or Georgian eras should be recognised as part of their history.

Beautiful Science runs from 20 February to 26 May 2014. See the British Library’s website for the full list of list of related events.


Historical images of women using scientific instruments

Cross-posted from The H Word.

Biologist Beatrice Mintz (b. 1921) with microscope
Biologist Beatrice Mintz (b. 1921), with microscope. Photograph: Smithsonian Institution/flickr


There is something about one of my Pinterest boards that seems to have caught the imagination. It is, as the platform allows, simply a way of collecting and displaying images that I have culled from elsewhere across the internet, hitting a particular theme. This one is called Women using scientific instruments.

At present, it is only 42 images, from the 14th century to the 1970s, the majority coming from the mid 19th to the mid 20th century. It has largely been created by chance and targeted Googling and offers no narratives and little interpretation. Yet it seems to have provided something that at least some people were looking for.

I started it some time back. Having written a blogpost including an image of putti using scientific instruments, I got into conversation with Danny Birchill on Twitter and mentioned that this had once been a fairly common trope and that, pre-19th century, images of people actually using scientific instruments were relatively rare. Danny was prompted to make his own Pinterest board, Putti of Science (there are many other examples).

This was my introduction to Pinterest, and I set about creating some history of science-themed boards myself. I hadn’t really promoted them but, after happening to mention it on Twitter, Alice Bell tweeted:

Historian of science, @beckyfh has a ‘women using scientific instruments’ board on Pinterest. And it’s a delight.

And it took off from there, with lots of re-tweets and follows on the board. As well as Alice’s “it’s a delight”, comments included “This is so great I may not sleep tonight”, “This gives me goosebumps” and “1st time I understand Pinterest”. I am not sure I have ever put together anything that seems to have had such an overwhelmingly positive response.

It is particularly interesting for me to have been part of this, given that I have sometimes found problems with the way that women in the history of science have been celebrated. Historical facts are rather too often ignored in favour of good stories and the creation of scientific heroes. Yet, the response to this set of images helps remind me how much women in science and science communication need to see themselves reflected in history.

It is also, as someone pointed out on Twitter with a link to this hilarious gallery of stock photography of women, a perfect response to the way women are so often depicted in the media. On my board I have eschewed the modern, posed images of “female scientist” and “woman with test tube”, and instead have largely gathered images of women who actually made use of the instruments they are shown with.

For me, it’s also important than only a few of these women are well known. This is not about creating heroines of science, or making any sort of claim beyond the fact that these particular women were there. It remains obvious that there are far more historical images of men with scientific instruments, and the images also show that women’s experience of science was often mediated by men. But this, and the fact that for much of history they were more likely to be part of the audience or figuring as a muse, should be recalled rather than swept under the carpet.

I, however, will remember the response to this simple collection. It was an excellent reminder that the past does not just belong to historians.

• Rebekah Higgitt will be speaking as part of a panel on Doing Women’s History in a Digital Age at the Women in Science Research Network conference this May. Comment here or tweet her @beckyfh with suggestions for the Pinterest board.

Astronomers Royal, scientific advice and engineering

Cross-posted from The H Word blog, where this post first appeared on 12 September 2013.

The collapsed Tay Bridge

This evening, the Astronomer Royal, Lord Rees, will weigh into the debate about climate change and geoengineering in an address at the British Science Festival.

Finding such fixes, as well as more efficient forms of alternative energy, may well be problems focused on by the new challenge prize that Rees has helped set up. That he, as Astronomer Royal, will be judging what has been called a new ‘Longitude Prize’, seems appropriate, but the innovations under consideration may be a long way from his own field of astronomy and cosmology.

Today the post of Astronomer Royal is honorary. It means simply, as Alok Jha’s article on Rees’s speech suggests, that he is “one of Britain’s most senior scientists”. Like a Chief Scientific Advisor, or the head of a scientific society, the Astronomer Royal can be expected to give all sorts of opinions about science and science policy, straying at least occasionally, if they wish, well beyond their area of research.

Was it always like this? Yes and no. Until the 1970s the post of Astronomer Royal was synonymous with director of the Greenwich Observatory (at GreenwichHerstmonceux and then Cambridge). Before the 19th century, the AR was also an active observer, in fact only one of two observers in the institution.

Nevertheless, Astronomers Royal were often called upon to make judgements and offer advice in areas that did not relate to making observations or managing an observatory. Because the Royal Observatory was funded by government, being under the administration of first the Board of Ordnance and then the Admiralty, there was potential for them to be asked to consider a whole range of technical and scientific issues.

For much of the AR’s history, the most obvious place in which this happened was the Board of Longitude. While many of the ideas under consideration were astronomical (involving knowledge of astronomical theory, mathematics, optics and instrumentation), others were based on geomagnetism or, of course, horology. Understanding clocks and timekeeping was essential to astronomy, but the specifics of horological theory and manufacture would have been beyond the AR’s experience.

ARs also advised on areas like cartography, instrument design and weights and measures, that involved techniques closely allied to astronomy. But they were also asked to consider a wide range of fields of interest to the Admiralty and other branches of government, simply because they ended up being their available scientific expert.

One of the ARs who most obviously became the government’s go-to scientific and technical guy was George Airy, who was in position from 1835 to 1881. Airy covered a great deal of ground, intellectually and practically. Unlike all his predecessors he was not much involved with daily observations and he had a significantly larger workforce at the Observatory, onto which observation, calculation and even management could be delegated.

Airy, for example, did a considerable amount of work on the effect of iron ships’ hulls on compass use and design. He also advised, like many other ARs, on education and he was involved in the organisation of the Great Exhibition. He was, perhaps most intriguingly, called in to advise the Great Western Railway on track gauges and the engineer Thomas Bouch about the pressures that might be exerted by wind on the planned rail bridge crossing the Forth.

That latter advice got him into trouble. It was first applied by Bouch to the Tay Bridge and, when that collapsed in 1879 [see image above], Airy was called in by the enquiry. He claimed that his advice had been specific to the circumstances of the Forth and the design for that bridge (which was now speedily discarded). The enquiry agreed, suggesting that Bouch had “must have misunderstood the nature of [Airy’s] report”.

Airy did know quite a lot about engineering. He was, apart from anything else, closely involved with the design of large instruments and their mounts at Greenwich. Times and the nature and range of expertise have changed considerably since the 19th century, however. Lord Rees is not an Astronomer Royal who can offer specific or technical engineering expertise, rather he is calling for research and funding. Whether or not you agree with his statements is a different matter.

The trouble with ‘science’

Cross-posted from The H Word.

Scientist filling test tubes in lab
Test tubes? Check. Pipette? Check. Safety glasses? Check. White coat? Check. Random coloured liquid? Check. Photograph: Alamy
I find that I am nearly always on my guard when I come across the words “science” and “scientist” in a sentence. OK, maybe not nearly always; after all, I call myself a historian of science, I write this post in the science section of the Guardian’s website and am forever using the words myself. Nevertheless …

“Scientists say …” is a phrase that hides far more than it explains. Which scientists, working in what field, where and why? Geologists are unlikely to be saying much, for example, about cancer, although if they are we should probably assess their comments differently from those emanating from a medical research lab. One group of chemists/astronomers/climate scientists may say something very different to another. Scientists can be academics, working in industry or for government departments, military or civilian. They can be pursuing original research or making use of routine techniques.

“Scientists say” is little more use, in fact, than “they say”. It just sounds more authoritative. Strangely, though, while use of the term is usually unhelpfully vague, the iconography of science and scientists is very often too specific. Thus test tubes and white coats have become the overriding symbol for people and activities that may have nothing whatsoever to do with these objects.

The words also start my historical sensibilities twitching, on the alert for anachronism. “Scientist” is a particular problem, being a word of fairly recent invention. While it was coined in the 1830s, by William Whewell, it was barely used at all until the end of the century, as this Google Ngram indicates.

Using “scientist” when discussing a period when the word was not used can be seriously misleading. We risk loading an individual’s views, status, ambitions and work with associations and ideas that would have meant nothing to them. The word allows us to forget to enquire whether they did something else to make their living, or were personally wealthy, and that science was not a career or vocation. Not only did the word not exist but there was no equivalent and no such idea.

Of course “science” is equally problematic. The root, “scientia” is simply knowledge or understanding, and what we now think of as science was, until the 19th century, natural philosophy and a range of more specific and practical fields: astronomy, mathematics, chymistry, physick and so on. Its meaning is historically unstable, and what counts as scientific in one period is not the same as what counts in another.

All this naturally makes it somewhat dubious that we should call a discipline that includes research on the pre-modern period history of science. It is shorthand, of course, but not for “the study of everything that looks like science to us today” or “the study of everything that we can trace as having led to today’s science”, but something more like “the study of humanity’s ideas about and interaction with the natural world”. Our definition carefully avoids connotations of the professional contexts that are surely ubiquitous in the word’s meaning today.

This leads me to another common misuse of “science”, which is as a synonym simply for “nature”. An example, as my fellow H-Worder, Vanessa, pointed out on Twitter the other day, is the Facebook page I fucking love science, which often seems to confuse the two. Our knowledge about nature is certainly mediated by science, but the two are not the same thing – nature gets on just fine without anyone watching, and our ideas about it have changed over the course of history, and will change in the future.

If it’s not “Yay science!” being written on a picture of a wild animal, it’s “science” being celebrated for our mobile phones, or blamed for not having given us rocket packs. These things are, of course, technology, which, historical research suggests, is more likely to be a driver for than any kind of simple or direct outcome of science. If you really want a particular gadget what you need is goal-oriented R&D, not “science”.

Maybe these expanded definitions reflect a similar shorthand to the one I described for “history of science” above, or maybe they simply show that the word “science” continues to have fluctuating boundaries. But it is worth being clear what we’re talking about when “science” is used to create authority, leverage funding, concentrate concerns or promise solutions. So, while I don’t want to ban its use, let’s think what we really mean.

Heritage and the Royal Institution

Cross-posted from The H Word blog [first published 29 January 2013].

The Royal Institution
The Royal Institution in about 1838, by T H Shepherd. Source: Wikimedia Commons

It has been interesting to observe reactions to the recent news about the financial troubles at the Royal Institution potentially being so severe that they might have to sell their Georgian premises on Albemarle Street. There have been calls and petitions to save the building based on an appeal to history and nostalgia. Equally, there have been questions (e.g.herehere, and here) about the RI’s modern role and whether this is well-served by a vast Mayfair building and the traditions that it celebrates.

Without treading too far into the question of what the RI does or should do as an institution for the communication of science in the 21st century, it is worth thinking about it as a site of scientific heritage and ask what makes it unique and worth preserving even if the Royal Institution itself should cease to exist.

Scientific heritage can be a difficult thing to assess, preserve and interpret. Removed from their context, old scientific instruments are apt to lose much of their meaning. Those which survive in museums are often not those which were ever used, for outdated equipment tends to be replaced and thrown away. The large technology and infrastructure of modern science poses enormous challenges for collection and preservation. Buildings in which scientific work has been done are often unexciting architecturally and opaque to the uninitiated.

Unesco, responsible for the inscription of World Heritage, has recently begun to notice that scientific heritage is under-represented on its lists. The problems of aesthetics and size are pertinent, along with the fact that science is often not understood as a manifestation of human culture in the same way that palaces, art works or technological sites like bridges and railways are.

When Unesco weighs up the importance of world heritage, it does so with the aid of three categories: immovable, moveable and intangible heritage. The first includes buildings, monuments, sites and landscapes. Plainly some of these are movable, or at least alterable, but they are associated with a particular place and very often the linking of a set of buildings or their placing within a landscape lends them greater significance than they might have on their own.

Moveable heritage, broadly speaking, consists of things that could end up in museums, such as paintings, objets d’art, textiles, scientific instruments, furniture, books and manuscripts. While individual items of immovable heritage may be hugely important or valuable, their inclusion within a larger collection, or their placing within a particular location can greatly enhance their significance and meaning.

Finally, intangible heritage is the stuff that is harder to pin down. Unesco defines it as including “living expressions and the traditions that countless groups and communities worldwide have inherited from their ancestors and transmit to their descendants, in most cases orally”. Things inscribed as intangible heritage include dances, festivals, recipes and a bewildering variety of traditions.

Intangible ideas and traditions can also play an important role in assessing the significance of items in the other two categories. Given the fact that the history of science is associated with many intangibles (i.e. things that we no longer touch or hold) – such as people, ideas, skills, discussions and so on – it is clear that this third category can be an extremely useful concept to bear in mind.

Arguably, when all three of these types of heritage come together, we have something particularly valuable. I am lucky enough to work within a World Heritage Site which includes a site of outstanding scientific significance. The Royal Observatory includes buildings designed for science, which are enhanced by their housing historic instruments used on that site, and other wonderful objects. On top of this there are the intangibles associated with the work of the Astronomers Royal and with the concepts of the Prime Meridian and Greenwich Mean Time.

The RI has a similar combination. It has a building long used for scientific and related purposes, parts of which were designed specifically for their role – most obviously the lecture theatre. It also has significant book, object and archive collections, made more significant by their close association with the place in which they are displayed or stored.

The building and objects are associated with the intangibles surrounding the people and scientific research undertaken at the institution. While Faraday’s electrical work and the discovery of 10 elements are usually highlighted, there was a wide range of work done in analysis and testing materials and techniques, often for private or government clients.

In addition to this, of course, the RI had a key role to play in the story of the relationship between science and the public. It is hard to think of another historic site that has combined these roles over such a long period of time and, especially, one that is still inhabited by the same institution. The RI’s intangible heritage is undoubtedly heightened by this fact.

It is true that the RI’s primary audience was a privileged one, catering for a very different market to, say, popular attractions with scientific content or working men’s institutions. It is not, perhaps, a tradition we would be keen to perpetuate (and the RI certainly does not do so exclusively), but we can recognise that getting society leaders on board with the messages of Davy, Faraday and their successors was hugely significant for British science in the period of its nascent professionalisation.

While science communication and outreach can and should take place beyond such hallowed halls, there is benefit in having at least some of it flavoured and informed by science’s heritage. It reminds us that science is not disembodied, pure knowledge, but that it is created by people in particular times and places, with particular equipment and in response to the demands and possibilities of the society in which they inhabit. The heritage of the RI also shows that science has to be communicated – and that this is a business with a long and often rather repetitive back story from which audiences and communicators alike can learn.

The combination of types of unique scientific heritage at the Royal Institution should be cherished. I also suspect its continuity on one site both enhances its significance and may be the best chance of its preservation.

Science, the public and the history of science

Cross-posted from The H Word blog. This post relates to the Twitter spat that took place between various scientists, science advocates, historians, philosophers, communicators at the end of last year. For some context and links to other related posts, see Peter Brok’s post, notes and comments.

Icebergs and Ice Bits Near Kangilerngata Sermia Glacier, Disko Bugt (Disko Bay), West Greenland

Some Twitter-types may have noticed that the New Statesman editorial by Brian Cox and Robin Ince on science, evidence and policy provoked some discussion and debate between the authors and various people loosely within the fields of History and Philosophy of Science and Science and Technology Studies.

One interesting post on the piece has been written by Jack Stilgoe here in the Guardian. Let me say straight up that, like Stilgoe, there was plenty I agree with in the piece. Particularly the meat of their article, in paragraphs 4 to 7, including the clear acknowledgement that science is work-in-progress and that it cannot be the only thing that policy-makers take into account.

Likewise, most of those engaged in the Twitter discussion would have been in complete agreement that science is an excellent way of producing evidence vital for informed policy and that the scientific evidence on climate change is clear.

So why the fuss? It was an opinion piece that discussed the nature of science and the role of science in society. These are areas that people in HPS and STS have devoted their careers to researching. The view of science that was presented here does not chime with the current consensus within these disciplines, and that naturally provoked a reaction – just as scientists are provoked to react by those who reject or ignore their research.

Both sides of this discussion have more in common than not, and the criticism was made in good faith and with a genuine belief that science, science communication and the use of scientific evidence in government policy, would benefit. We aim to aid, not to jeopardise understanding of scientific evidence, by following the evidence uncovered by our disciplines (and, yes, there are other kinds of evidence than scientific).

Broadly, my objections fall into two categories:

1. The piece suggests that science is separated from the “moral, geopolitical and economic components”, even if they rightly acknowledge that it must be part of policy-making

2. Some large and a-historical claims are made regarding changing attitudes to science and technology

On the first, I agree with what Stilgoe has written: “Climate science cannot be separated from climate politics”, for scientists are people and they are funded by people. Choices about scientific research and its interpretation are also influenced by geographic, economic, moral and other frameworks. Failing to acknowledge this places an impossible burden on science and its practitioners and inhibits good discussion around different kinds of evidence and opinion.

While there are lots of good phrases about this in the piece, it remains the case that we have scientific evidence on one side of the equation and everything else on the other. It is right to say that scientific evidence “should not be seen or presented … as a body of inviolate knowledge against which policy should be judged”, and yet it and “the scientific method” are given a unique place in this discussion. It is the only thing placed as an “adjudicator above opinion”, and they explicitly see a border between science and politics, even if it is portrayed as an unclear one.

The second issue arises in the article’s framing, especially the big opening: “The story of the past hundred years is one of unparalleled human advances, medically, technologically and intellectually. The foundation for these changes is the scientific method”. This was bound to get the historical and philosophical radar twitching, even if it seems peripheral to the focus of the piece.

“[U]nparalleled human advances” is questionable, for almost any other 100-year period can give a similar sense. In the West in recent centuries, science and technology have certainly played a huge part in those changes, but claiming that the kind of technological innovations Ince and Cox are referring to are due to “the scientific method” is something most scholarship in the history and philosophy of science rejects. Firstly, there are many scientific methods and many, when studied in detail, are not particularly methodological. Secondly, new technology tends to lead to new scientific research, rather than vice versa.

This is fairly trivial in the context, however galling to those who carry out research that demonstrates these points. However, more problematic is the fact that the piece goes on to claim that our cushy life and unquestioning consumption of incomprehensible technology is leading us to be less impressed by and accepting of such novelties. Apparently we are devolving:

The technology and advances in knowledge that cosset us have removed, to a large extent, the need to use our ingenuity and to think rationally. Believing complete drivel was once selected against; now it gets you an expert slot on daytime TV.

In fact, historical research suggests that levels of “believing complete drivel”, like those of greeting innovations with “excitement and awe” or boredom or suspicion have not changed a great deal. There is no evidence that “humbug and charlatanism are able to creep into our lives with greater ease”, and I have yet to find anyone arguing that “we are no longer obliged to continue the scientific exploration of nature” or that “scientific progress is no longer desirable or necessary”.

It is untrue and unhelpful to claim that those who question or ignore certain scientific findings are opposed to science in general. Such statements set up unnecessary dualisms and a “you’re either with us or against us” feeling. Frankly, if people only accept part of the package, better that than none. We need to avoid situations where people, who for whatever cultural, religious or personal reasons are unconvinced by scientific arguments in one area, find themselves forced into taking sides in a science/anti-science dichotomy.

How are we to proceed? We should simply accept that “It is not logical to challenge the findings of science unless there are specific, evidence-based reasons for doing so”. But the trouble is that people do challenge, and being told that they can’t isn’t likely to stop them. There is no call here to improve communication with those who have doubts about the message. In the end, we are left simply with “Believe us”.

Finally, I do think that scientists are better at science than me, and that successful science communicators are better at communicating science (to a large audience, if not to all audiences). I also think that when scientists, rightly, get involved with discussing the nature of science (philosophy) and its role in society (history, social sciences) they might accept that there are other realms of scholarship that have thought about these things long and hard, and have important things to add to the conversation.

Why women fade into the background on Wikipedia

Cross-posted from The H Word.

Wikipedia front page, 19 October 2012

On Friday afternoon, the Royal Society hosts a group edit-a-thon aimed at improving Wikipedia articles about women in science. It is timed to link with Ada Lovelace Day earlier this week, an event that seeks to share stories about inspirational women in science.

Admitting that Wikipedia is a first port of call for most people looking for basic, and sometimes not so basic, biographical information, the event is an attempt to improve the quality of entries and raise the profile of women in science and engineering, both past and present. Not simply relying on other online resources, participants will be able to make use of the Royal Society’s unique collections, as well as its library staff and representatives of Wikipedia UK.

The society’s library is enjoying its 350th anniversary this year, although it is only for the past 67 years that women have been admitted as fellows. Despite increasing efforts to ensure a level playing field, female fellows are still a tiny minority, being only 5% of the total. Awareness of this disparity undoubtedly makes the Royal Society keen to focus on celebrating successful women in science and on inspiring the next generation.

The event itself raises some interesting themes and ideas. The most obvious is the fact that the contribution of women to science, and elsewhere, can be made more visible. Our view of what counts in thehistory of science is very much influenced by older assumptions and past prejudices. Prizes, publications, professional positions and fellowships are key markers, and automatically lead to commemoration of achievements in obituaries, which are the first drafts of future biographies. Women were, of course, generally barred from such recognition until all too recently.

Other markers, therefore, need to be sought and added into our accounts, and Wikipedia is the kind of cumulative and fluid environment in which this can be done.

When looking for the women, and for those other markers of eminence, researchers find themselves beginning to think about what counts as an important contribution to science in a slightly different way. There is, necessarily, less emphasis on the traditional roll call of theoretical advances (of the Copernicus-Kepler-Newton-Einstein variety) and an appreciation of the essential contribution that collectors, experimentalists, technicians, writers, translators, teachers and calculators have made.

This, by rights, should lead to the widening of the net of scientific biography to include a whole load of underappreciated men as well. Some, such as top instrument makers, were seen as being hugely skilful, knowledgeable and important in their day but are often poorly represented on Wikipedia. Others were not given the opportunities to be recognised or remembered, with lower class or non-European men being, like women, essentially disenfranchised.

This may appear to work against the spirit of the day, but is equally important in terms of appreciating the way science has really operated in history and how it generates knowledge, meaning, agreement and conflict across diverse societies today. For British women, however, it is possible that the most important aspect of the event will not be the making available of a little extra information about women scientists, but the focus on women as Wikipedia editors.

The dominance of men in the Wikipedia online community is well-documented and something that the company is attempting to address through its Gender Gap project. While coming in somewhat ahead of the proportion of female fellows of the Royal Society, in 2009 female Wikipedians were only around 13% of the active community.

Research suggests that this matters for a number of reasons, principally that male and female editors tend to focus on different content areas, that the coverage of topics more likely to be of interest to female users of Wikipedia is seen as inferior, and that Wikipedia is missing out on the successful development of its social and community areas.

There is also, particularly around more controversial topics, a tendency to macho behaviour among editors. Women, it turns out, are much less likely to edit articles in these areas and, if they do, their edits are more likely to be rejected. These rejections are often not to do with factual content, but differences in tone and approach.

This experience means that these women are very likely to back away from the whole project. In other words, women’s voices and views are seriously underrepresented, even when they might consider themselves experts in a particular area.

The Royal Society’s edit-a-thon will include a range of well-qualified and motivated women with an interest in making themselves, as well as women in the history of science, heard. Wikipedia will certainly benefit from developing an atmosphere that is more welcoming to women like these.

Finding women in the history of science

Cross-posted from The H Word (first published on 16 October 2012 – Ada Lovelace Day)

Margaret Bryan and her daughters
Margaret Bryan, portrayed here with her daughters, was a writer of popular scientific books and taught sciences at her school for girls. Source: Wikimedia

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, which has been marked annually since 2009 as a celebration of women in science, technology, engineering or mathematics. The Finding Ada website explains that “The aim is to create new role models for girls and women in these male-dominated fields by raising the profile of women in STEM”.

Readers of some of my earlier posts – on the Tesla museum campaign, for example, or on whiggish and triumphalist histories – will be aware that I do not see the celebration of heroes in history and science as an uncomplicated matter. This is because, all too often, lionising a particular individual can lead to dismissing the contribution of others and, beyond that, a lack of appreciation of the very collaborative – or aggregating – nature of scientific work.

In fact, despite being named after a woman born in 1815, Ada Lovelace Day is less about heroines and history and more about sharing stories about women who have inspired others’ careers in STEM. This might be because of their achievements in science or because of their roles as teachers and mentors. Such factors can be of huge individual significance and, given that women are still sadly in the minority in the upper echelons of science, there is a lot of good to be done.

I have to admit, though, that I find the choice of Lovelace as the marker for this event slightly peculiar. She has become something of a cult heroine, claimed as the writer of the first computer programme, produced for Charles Babbage‘s never-realised Analytical Engine. But it is only very recently, with a lot of hindsight, that she has been an inspirational figure.

It is clear that Lovelace had a deep interest in and feeling for Babbage’s work and an ability in mathematics that few women in the early 19th century were able to demonstrate. However, it is also clear that Babbage indulged and flattered her because she had wealth and influence and, frankly, was one of a number of routes through which he could advertise his scheme. It is not the case that her programme was the first written for Babbage’s machine and there has been much doubt cast on the significance and originality of what she did produce.

One would think that there are many women who made more significant contributions in the history of science who might provide a better model. And yet, there is some good to be done in recalling Lovelace, and in seeking out women in the history of science, most of whom, before the 20th century and on the face of it, do not make the grade to be placed in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography without special pleading.

Because of their lack of education, and society’s expectations of their role as home-makers and child-rearers, there are vanishingly small numbers of pre-20th century women who made clearly-attributable, original and influential contributions to the content of scientific theory. However, recalling my earlier mention of the collaborative and aggregating nature of science, it is perhaps only our inheritance of older perspectives that leads us to place such work on a higher pedestal than other contributions.

It takes all kinds of skills and input from people from across society for scientific ideas to be developed, used and shared. And what is an idea without this? Many of the women who are recalled in the history of science were translators, teachers, writers, collectors and illustrators. These were the kinds of roles that women could undertake without disapproval, and they are ones that really are essential to the development of science and should not be too quickly dismissed.

Seeking women in the history of science, we find a significant number who were able to make their mark as assistants or collaborators to their fathers, husbands and brothers. In many cases the true significance of their input may be hard to uncover but, even if simply amanuenses, secretaries or sounding-boards, their contribution may have been absolutely necessary. We will also find some – a very few – who took on paid work of a scientific nature: undertaking calculations, perhaps, or making instruments. Skilled work that played its part in developing a society dependent on science and technology.

Lovelace made her mark both in the early 19th century and today as someone who was enthused by and championed a particular technological and mathematical vision. Cheerleaders in influential places have always been essential too. But today, as I host a Finding Ada event, I will be recalling the many, apparently minor, roles that women have taken on, for science is not just made by the big names. I will also be celebrating the fact that today, at last, the big names may increasingly be female ones.

Grantham celebrates Isaac Newton

Cross-posted from The H Word.

Statue of Newton in Grantham
The 1858 statue of Isaac Newton, by William Theed, in Grantham. Photograph: Wikimedia

In a recent post on this site, Stuart Clark introduced the Gravity Fields Festival, and the complexity of the figure it celebrates – Isaac Newton. The festival, being held in Grantham, where Newton went to school, runs until Friday 28 September. Its theme is Newton and science, but it is an arts as well as a science festival, with plenty of history and heritage thrown in for good measure.

Thus there is room for museums, archives, galleries, music, history, theatre and events in an eclectic range of venues. My talk on Monday, on Newton’s public and prolonged interest in the very practical topic of maritime navigation, was undoubtedly improved by being in a pub. Elsewhere, Grantham’s schoolchildren have been introduced to novel spaces: an apothecary’s shop and an alchemist’s laboratory.

Grantham, of course, has long celebrated its connection with Newton. The nearby Woolsthorpe and its apple tree have been a pilgrimage site from at least the later 18th century, with visitors often making off with a few leaves or even roots. One of Newton’s earliest biographers, William Stukeley, visited the area to talk to people who remembered the young Newton. His unpublished memoir, which recorded some of the most memorable Newtonian anecdotes, has been digitised and can be read on the Royal Society’s website.

The townspeople’s own sense that their most famous son should be celebrated publicly developed in the 19th century. Thus, well over a century before the classic Isaac Newton Shopping Centre was built, a bronze statue was raised. This was to be a moment of national as well as local significance for Grantham. Thus just as in 2012 South Kesteven District Council has enticed luminaries including Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and former president of the Royal Society, in 1858 Grantham Town Council hosted the then president of the society, Benjamin Brodie, and a flock of eminent visitors from Oxbridge and the metropolis

The guest of honour and keynote speaker was Lord Brougham, a former lord chancellor who had just published an analysis of Newton’s Principia Mathematica. Representatives of Trinity College, Cambridge, and the British Association for the Advancement of Science were also present. Flanked by boys of the grammar school and the townspeople of Grantham, it was a spectacle impressive enough to be engraved for the pages of the Illustrated London News.

It included an element that could never be repeated today. As well as a president and assorted fellows, the Royal Society sent along a chair believed to have belonged to Newton (on which Brougham sat), and three treasured relics that were paraded through the town. They were Newton’s reflecting telescope, his prism and a first edition copy of Principia, carried on cushions and then set up, in open air, before the statue.

Although such objects would never be treated in this fashion today, Grantham has nevertheless imported a number of treasures. Perhaps most impressively, the National Portrait Gallery has loaned portraits for display in Belton House. The scale and scope of the celebrations are, of course, much greater than the 1858 event. As a finale, it is the ambition of Gravity Fields to transform the town – “Grantham as you have never seen it!” – this Friday. Weather permitting, a pedestrianised town centre will “come alive with Newton themed processions, aerial displays, light projections and … performers”.

Back in the 1850s the former mayor of Grantham, Thomas Winter, had claimed that “All civilized nations may … claim an interest in Newton” and lauded him as a benefactor, philosopher and man of science, “no mere flash of genius, but the steady process of untiring industry” and not just wise, but “the most practical of philosophers”. Everyone should appreciate and revere his memory.

Such heroes are much less relevant to our times. The Gravity Fields Festival has been considerably more of the “warts and all” approach to Newton’s life and personality, recalling his enmities, frailties, and interest in alchemy and revelation as well as optics and mathematics. It nevertheless demonstrates that Newton, and the whole range of things his life and after-life are associated with, can generate an interesting, eclectic, non-reverential and inspiring series of events.