Public engagement with science, Victorian style

A new book on John Tyndall and 19th century scientific naturalism raises questions that are still relevant to how we communicate science and authority today. Cross-posted from The H Word blog.

Michael Faraday's 1856 Christmas Lecture
Michael Faraday’s 1856 Christmas Lecture at the Royal Institution. Photograph: Wikimedia Commons

Most people are familiar with some Victorian attempts to popularise science. Perhaps best known are the Royal Institution’s Christmas Lectures, begun by Michael Faraday and continued by successors including John Tyndall. They helped make science fashionable and the lecturers famous, also instilling a particular view of science, its authority and its relationship to the public.

The 19th century was, though, also a boom time for publishing about science, in books and periodicals aimed at all sorts of readers: budding researchers, interested amateurs, women, children, self-improving workers, pious admirers of God’s work and political radicals. Because of this plethora of audiences – and the still fuzzy lines between amateur/professional, researcher/populariser, man of science/man of letters – there was room for a diverse range of approaches.

I was struck afresh by this multitude of voices speaking for and about science when reviewing a new book, edited by Bernard Lightman and Michael Reidy, for an academic journal. It focuses on the world of the scientific naturalists, including Tyndall, as they sought to establish a science they claimed was based purely on naturalistic explanations. In limiting science to empirical investigation, they asserted a unique authority in speaking about science.

Tyndall and others such as T H Huxley are seen as heroes of rational, secularised science, heralding the arrival of a trained and professionalised scientific workforce. This book, like others in the history of science, complicates this narrative in various ways. It is impossible to fit individuals into neat boxes with regard to their views on science, metaphysics and theology, and thinking in terms of science versus religion, rationalism versus dogmatism, or even professionalism and amateurism, is deeply misleading.

One chapter particularly caught my attention with its clear illumination of something I have always felt made the legacy of Tyndall and his close allies interestingly problematic for us today. Jeremiah Rankin and Ruth Barton do this by comparing the popular writings on science of Tyndall and G H Lewes (better known as a critic and George Eliot’s partner).

Rankin and Barton make a convincing case that we should treat both men as being simultaneously men of science and men of letters – both carried out scientific observation and experiment and both wrote about science for a general readership. They can also both be described as scientific naturalists, promoting evolution and other naturalistic accounts of the formation and workings of the physical world.

As the essay shows, though, there were significant differences between the two with regard to how they portrayed men of science and their relationship to the wider public. While Tyndall emphasised all the trappings of authoritative science – specialist laboratory space, equipment, techniques – Lewes discussed observation and experiment that could be carried out in the field or at home.

While this can be put down to the different kinds of science they were discussing – physical sciences and physiology – and their differing status within the scientific world, there is more to it than this. Both men made use of laboratories and a community of experts, but only Tyndall sought to emphasise this, along with the distance and difference between elite men of science and his readers. His approach was what we might now call “deficit model”, and he saw his role as guiding his readers around the complexity of knowledge that only a few people could speak about with authority.

Lewes, by contrast, was much closer to today’s favoured model of public engagement with science (see this short post on PUS to PEST). He was inviting readers to be present and, potentially, participating in science, rather than simply receiving the words of an expert. Tyndall’s elite, specialised and closed world was met by Lewes’s inclusive, democratic and accessible vision of science.

Tyndall expected, above all, for his audiences and readers to be impressed with his ability to understand and manipulate natural phenomena. Experiments performed in lectures were less about revealing processes and more about proving his skill and knowledge. As Rankin and Barton suggest, he “promoted a conception of science that largely excluded the public from the production of scientific knowledge”.

Lewes, on the other hand, expected his audience to question, challenge or verify what they were told, to engage, participate and make discoveries of their own. He insisted that science should be opened up more widely, fearing it might otherwise “degenerate into immoveable dogma”. Only broad participation would ensure the validity of scientific work.

While historians are wary about applying lessons from the past, history does help us to question present assumptions. It gives us pause to reflect on how much attempts to establish the authority of particular groups and approaches have been about excluding others from the conversation. Tyndall was right that we can’t all be scientific researchers, but Lewes’s democratic vision for science might still inspire us to reopen channels of communication that have since been shut down.

Book review: Venus Seen on the Sun

This review was first published in the British Journal for the History of Science 46 (March 2013)

Jeremiah Horrocks and Wilbur Applebaum (trans.), Venus Seen on the Sun: The First Observation of a Transit of Venus by Jeremiah Horrocks. Leiden: Brill, 2012. Pp. xxiv +82. ISBN 978­90­04­22193­2. €99.00 (hardback). 

Jeremiah Horrocks' observation of the 1639 transit of Venus, as published by Johannes Hevelius with Horrocks' Venus in sole visa in 1662.
Jeremiah Horrocks’ observation of the 1639 transit of Venus, from Johannes Hevelius’ version of Venus in sole visa (1662).

The June 2012 transit of Venus was the occasion to turn our attention once again to the observers of the previous transits, in 1639, 1761, 1769, 1874 and 1882. Thus it is that we have the first English translation since the nineteenth century of Jeremiah Horrocks’s account of his 1639 observation. This seems long overdue, especially given the fact that the only other available translation, which is ‘more free in style than necessary’ (p. xxii), was produced by someone who lacked familiarity with the history of astronomy and introduced a number of errors.

The text of Venus in Sole visa, first published by Johannes Hevelius in 1662, is not only an account of the first observation of this rare event but also a fascinating commentary on astronomy at a period of significant change. The transit gave Horrocks the opportunity to judge and correct the work of Copernicus, Lansberge, Longomontanus and Kepler, with the Rudolphine Tables of the last being proved much the superior. It was this, rather than the observation itself, or even its indication of the planets’ great distance and lack of luminosity, that marked the significance of the work. In addition, the text is remarkably readable: as Applebaum writes in the brief introduction, ‘It is filled with an unrestrained enthusiasm and intensity of commitment from which a youthful and refreshing naiveté is never wholly lacking’ (p. xxiii).

Short though the introduction is, it helpfully outlines Horrocks’s life, the history of the four draft manuscripts of the treatise, and the astronomical context in which it was produced and read. Applebaum’s notes in the main text are full and extremely helpful, in technical matters and in relation to the books and manuscripts that Horrocks was referring to, both scientific and literary. I cannot comment on the faithfulness of the translation but it reads well, with the exception, perhaps, of Horrocks’s poetry, which has been translated for meaning rather than scansion.

A sense of Horrocks’s personality arises from the text, in part due to his adhering to ‘a style now completely gone from scientific literature’ (p. xxiv). There is infectious zeal, leading to amusingly damning judgements, as well as the poetry, digressions and classical allusions. (The transit of Venus is a subject for which coy personifications and metaphors of seduction seem not yet to have gone out of style.) It is not hard to see why successive readers of Horrocks have taken him to their hearts. The Victorians, with Arundell B. Whatton’s 1859 Memoir and a series of essentially fictional memorials and portraits, naturally led the way, bequeathing their vision of a pious and persevering young cleric, fighting ill health to perform first his Christian and then his scientific duty.

Jeremiah Horrocks' observation of the transit of Venus, as imagined in 1891 by Eyre Crowe
Jeremiah Horrocks’ observation of the transit of Venus, as imagined in 1891 by Eyre Crowe

We, no less enthused by a local hero with his finger on the pulse of Continental astronomy, will still rejoice in the account of a young astronomer’s greatest moment. Although touched by the thought of his work being cut short by tragically early death, Horrocks nevertheless comes across as wonderfully vital. The modern, positively reclaimed term ‘geek’ comes to mind in reading Horrocks’s description of astronomers who ‘immoderately delight in trifling things, which do not move others in the least’ (p. 16). Something similar arises from his lauding of Kepler, ‘the unparalleled prince of true astronomy’ (p. 51), and his dismissal of the ‘boasts’ and ‘impotent clamour’ (p. 72) of Philippe van Lansberge and those who relied on his tables.

Apart from Kepler, Horrocks’s greatest praise is for ‘the recent and wonderful invention of the telescope’ (p. 8). Despite writing three decades after the instrument was patented, Horrocks clearly felt that ‘the Belgian telescope’ still required a better reputation, and thus he affirmed the increased accuracy it allowed and defended it against those who suggested it could create illusions. It is eulogized in verse, as readers are urged to ‘learn the wonders of such a great tube’ (p. 11) and join him, lying in wait to spy Venus.

Being a review of a book published by Brill, this must end with the inevitable comment about cost. Ninety-nine euros for just over a hundred pages is steep by any measure. Given the accessible style of Horrocks’s writing and Applebaum’s translation, it is a shame that this should simply be a library-based reference work. The author’s preface promises a full-length biography of Horrocks in the near future. It is much to be hoped that this does indeed appear, and that it is available at a price that places it within reach of significantly more pockets.

The tale of a telescope

In this month’s Journal for the History of Astronomy I have a book review of Richard Gillespie’s The Great Melbourne Telescope – a book I enjoyed reading and a review I enjoyed writing.

The Great Melbourne Telescope. Richard Gillespie (Museum Victoria Publishing, Melbourne, 2011). Pp. 188. AUD 29.95 (paperback). ISBN 978-1-92183-305-2.

This readable and well-illustrated book takes a journey that begins in 1840s Ireland and passes through the astronomical élites of Victorian Britain, colonial Australian society and twentieth-century international collaborative research programmes. The telescope that provides the focus of this story is both a remarkable physical pres- ence and an object of different meanings in the minds of those who dreamed it up, designed it, built it, worked with it or simply visited it. The cast of characters who swiftly cross these pages include British princes, a Fenian agitator, colonial officials and, of course, astronomers major and minor.

Gillespie commendably handles this broad canvas and the specific or more technical details. The content, bibliography and endnotes are proof of knowledge and research that is woven well into an engaging narrative, only occasionally weighted down with the detail necessary to explain the frequent delays and pauses that characterized the history of this telescope. Each chapter opens with a section of semi-dramatized storytelling that, although it felt a little artificial with repetition, works to keep the reader’s interest and, more importantly, to focus attention on telling episodes.

Thus the first chapter opens on a cold night in Ireland, with Lord Rosse, Sir James South and Thomas Romney Robinson observing with Rosse’s ‘Leviathan’. These men, the ambitious telescope and the aim of resolving disputes about the nature of nebulae form the story’s background. The southern hemisphere beckoned as a field that, despite John Herschel’s work, remained relatively unexplored, and with climates more promising than Ireland’s for the use of large mirrored telescopes. Rosse and Robinson, while President of the Royal Society and the British Association for the Advancement of Science respectively, had their moment in 1852 to create the joint Southern Telescope Committee.

The published correspondence of this committee presents the historian with a wonderful resource to explore the currents of astronomical research, telescope design, politics and personalities. Disagreements caused delay as did, almost fatally to the project, the Crimean War. It took intense lobbying from the colonies to revive the project, and so enters, in the second chapter, the bounding figure of William Wilson, an ambitious, undiplomatic professor of mathematics in Melbourne. Gillespie’s account of society in colonial Victoria is particularly well drawn, with a sense of its burgeoning development until depression hit late in the century. It is a place where names and fortunes could be made, where local, colonial and national identities were consciously developed, and where a large telescope could make a big statement.

The following two chapters open with the drama of casting the telescope’s mirror at Thomas Grubb’s Dublin workshop, and with the Melbourne Observatory’s director, Robert Ellery, writing to explain the difficulties encountered working the telescope at a distance from British and Irish expertise. Not until chap. 5 and the 1870s do we see “The telescope at work” in a regular, satisfying manner, although problems remained in finding observers, keeping the mirrors untarnished and producing results that would justify the costs. As described in the following chapter, however, justification was also found in telescope’s symbolic role within Melbourne and beyond. From the beginning, monthly open evenings were held, and the telescope’s educative, or public relations, role as “the city’s scientific icon” (p. 119) should not be underestimated.

The affection felt for this instrument explains its final chapter. While economic slowdown and changing priorities meant that it was largely unused in the first half of the twentieth century, its symbolic importance, along with claims of economy, let to its post-war “Rebirth”. Twice it was completely remodelled, with increasingly automated operation and a new mirror collecting light for analysis by a host of instru- ments. Where once the observer tackled the telescope manually, trained his eye to see and interpret the faint light of nebulae, and recorded his impressions in drawing and lithograph, now the Great Melbourne Telescope’s light was analysed by computer in the search for evidence of dark matter.

This new life was ended by a bushfire in 2003. This disaster has, however, given Victoria’s Museum and Astronomical Society the opportunity to reunite the original Grubb axes and bearings with parts of the telescope long-since removed. Because of the desire to use the instrument for public observing sessions, it will be fitted with new mirrors and finding system, creating a curious hybrid, like most of our working historical telescopes. While astronomical research continues onward to ever-larger reflectors, this instrument will play its old role of engaging the public with astronomy. And as Richard Gillespie’s enjoyable book makes clear, it should also lead visitors to consider Australia’s astronomical heritage, tied closely as it is to the history of the nation itself. The telescope’s story is one worth telling.