Sympathetic vibrations

Over at PACHSmörgåsbord, brought to us by the Philadelphia Area Centre for History of Science, Darin Hayton has been catching the longitude vibe while investigating the collection of the Library Company of Philadelphia. He describes an anonymous 1688 pamphlet that, famously for those who have looked into the history of longitude, suggests an intruiging solution to the problem. Visit his post to find out more about the pamphlet and its context.

The story is a good one – and a nice satire – but it has often been taken at face value. I’ve taken a quick overview and suggest some reasons why it has become a favourite in popular accounts. Read more.


What are science museums for?

There has of late been a lot of attention focused on one small corner of the Science Museum of London. Not, sadly, the Science in the 18th Century Gallery I mentioned in a previous post but an exhibit within the galleries on modern medicine and history of medicine, called ‘Living Traditions’. Because this takes an anthropological perspective of practices such as homeopathy, acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine, various individuals have raised a blogging firestorm, suggesting that the Museum is insufficiently critical of the patients’ and practitioners’ testimonies that it presents. It all started on Purely a figment of your imagination, received this reply from the Museum and was further stoked on DC’s Improbable Science, on Pharyngula and with a guest post on The Lay Scientist at the Guardian.

I don’t want to discuss this particular exhibit, mainly because I haven’t seen it*. I also want to avoid comments focusing on this one example rather than the general principle. So, please don’t tell me (again) why you think there are problems with ‘Living Traditions’ in particular. Please also note, I am supportive of the right kind of campaign against homeopathy, just as I support the right kind of arguments against astrology.

Rather, I want to focus on some of the comments that have arisen from these posts regarding the nature of the Science Museum in particular and science museums in general.Read More »

Hands-on science

Visitors to the Science Museum are often either delighted or slightly bemused by the contrasts provided by its exhibits. The oldest gallery, containing delightfully old-fashioned dioramas of agricultural machinery at work, faces one of the newer, on plastics. Both the topics and their method of display are entirely different, and entirely of their time.

Another striking juxtaposition is provided by the positioning of the noisy, and packed, hands-on Launch Pad, aimed at 8-14-year-olds, next to the sedate, and usually completely empty, display of the Science in the 18th Century. It had always seemed odd, and rather unjust to the beautiful 18th-century instruments, that the gallery entrance should be placed on a landing through which parents are quickly dragged by their impatient children to the more enticing activity beyond, and where child-free adults almost fear to tread. On my last visit, however, I finally got it. Read More »

Yes, histories of science are worth reading!

In a previous post, Alice Bell suggested in a comment that I read the article by Mark Erickson in this month’s issue of History of the Human Sciences. The issue also contains responses from Patricia Fara, Steve Fuller and Joseph Rouse but, since Erickson’s reply to these replies doesn’t seem to have taken on board some of the points that they and I consider important, it seems pertinent to continue the discussion. Also, since Erickson considers histories of science aimed at specialist and popular (or esoteric and exoteric) audiences, a blog seems an appropriate place to do this.

Erickson asks “Why should I read histories of science”, not, as you might expect from someone who researches and teaches the sociology of science, to explain why YOU should read books in this important discipline, but to explain why he think histories of science have little to offer anyone who does not want to reinforce society’s “normative understanding of science” [p. 86]. Some of his complaints certainly chime with my own thinking, as discussed in earlier posts, and the sort of thing that I would consider ‘good’ history of science  is what he too believes is missing from existing work. But Erickson goes much further, disapproving of  most specialist (or esoteric) histories as well as popular (or exoteric).Read More »

The Royal Soc and British Ass

Next week I will be speaking at the British Science Festival in Birmingham in a session celebrating the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society. I will be talking about the Society in the 19th century, which gives me the chance to compare and contrast its role with that of the many other scientific institutions that first saw light in the 1800s. These include the Geological Society (1807), Royal Astronomical Society (1820), Royal Geographical Society (1830), many provincial societies and the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1831) – organisers of the annual science festival and recently renamed as the British Science Association. The tradition of the annual meeting of the BAAS (or BSA), usually held in September, goes back to the very beginning. I have never been before, but I am interested to see how recognisable today’s festival would be to those who enjoyed the original “Philosophers’ Picnic”. Read More »