New blue plaque to botanist Agnes Arber

Yesterday, a Blue Plaque was unveiled to the botanist, and philosopher and historian of botany, Agnes Arber (1879-1960). This event both paid tribute to a pioneer who made a significant mark in her field and reflects the English Heritage scheme’s ambition to increase the numbers of women and other under-represented groups commemorated by its plaques. I am a member of the Blue Plaque panel and was delighted to lead the speeches at the unveiling in Primrose Hill.

Arber plaque
The new English Heritage blue plaque, unveiled in Primrose Hill on 1 November 2018.

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Book review: Scientific instruments on display

An edited version of this review appeared in the British Journal for the History of Science in December 2015.


Ackermann, Silke, Kremer, Richard L., and Miniati, Mara, Scientific Instruments on Display. Leiden: Brill, 2014. Pp. xxxiv + 231. ISBN 978-90-04-26439-7. £88 (hardback).

The twelve chapters in this volume are drawn from papers given at the 2010 Scientific Instrument Symposium, which met in the newly renovated Museo Galileo and took the theme “Instruments on Display”. Some of the contributions are fairly slight in length and analysis, but together they encourage “thinking about the cultural, technical or scientific significance of how scientific instruments have been displayed in venues other than those for which they were originally made”, even if they do not quite lead to “general frameworks” for such thoughts (p. xvii). The usefulness of the collection is in its variety. “Display” and “instruments” are interpreted broadly, generating a plurality of meanings that reflect changing views of science, instruments, the public, museums and markets. Instruments rather rarely appear as tools but are, instead, commodities, relics, adornments, scenery and means of educating or conveying national, cultural, institutional, scientific or technical histories. Likewise, while “display” often relates to museum galleries and exhibitions, it also points to schoolrooms, laboratories, observatories, showrooms, theatres, cinemas, books and portraits.

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Book review: Writing about women’s lives in science

An edited version of this book review appeared in the latest issue of British Journal for the History of Science (vol. 49, 2016, pp. 529-30).


Govoni, Paola, and Franceschi, Zelda Alice (eds.), Writing about Lives in Science: (Auto)Biography, Gender, and Genre. Goettingen: V&R Unipress, 2015. Pp. 287. ISBN. 978-3-8471-0263-2. €44.99 (hardback).

Biography within the history of science has repeatedly been rescued, revived and reconsidered: from Thomas Hankins’s 1979 ‘Defense of Biography’, to the essays in Telling Lives in Science (1996, eds. Michael Shortland and Richard Yeo), the 2002 workshop that led to The History and Poetics of Scientific Biography (2006, ed. Thomas Söderqvist), the 2006 ‘Focus’ section in Isis and now this collection. Many of those who have written biographies have been reflexive about their motivations and their version of their subject’s life and character. Richard Westfall, for example, produced some fascinating reflections for the 1985 collection Introspection in Biography, showing the wisdom of B.J.T. Dobbs’s comment that Newton is “something of a Rorschach inkblot test” for historians (Isis 85 (1994), 516). Those academic biographies of major figures have, after all, still been produced and, as Margaret Rossiter and Pnina G. Abir-Am led the way from the 1980s onward, so too have collections and considerations of lives of women scientists.

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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.

Finding a place for longitude: history of science displays at the NMS

Over on the Longitude Project blog, there are two posts commenting on the newly refurbished National Museum of Scotland and the display on astronomy, navigation, time and longitude. Katy’s At Sea in Edinburgh, while I muse on Edinburgh objects and on why history of science gets extracted from art, history and culture.

Longitude tourism

The last few posts on the Longitude Project blog have seen Richard and I travelling again, but this time in Europe rather than the new world, and indulging in some longitude tourism. Richard, at the Scientific Instruments Commission conference in Kassel, has been tracking Tobias Mayer in his Mayer odyssey parts one and two. I, meanwhile, have been in Paris enjoying a French sojourn. I’ll be posting more on the conference I was attending here later, but for more on the Greenwich-Paris and longitude connections, read more here.