Delivery time!

Longitude found! The book has been published, the exhibition has opened, and so far all is going pretty well. Although, of course, there are things I would have liked to have changed or tweaked, I am really pleased with how both look and with the message that is, by and large, coming across.

It’s difficult to get an impression of an exhibition through photographs, rather than actually being there. It is a three or even four dimensional experience that involves light, sound, space and (occasionally) touch as well as objects and text. It surrounds you and you move through it and across it over time. Nevertheless, because it was amazing for me to see it after so long existing only in lists of objects, label text and designers’ drawings, I put up a picture gallery over on The H Word, with captions that offer a whistle-stop tour.

National Maritime Museum's Ships, Clocks and Stars exhibition
The exhibition opens with a large, changing seascape – a scene with no landmarks except the moon and stars – and objects that evoke the risks and rewards of maritime travel. Photograph: National Maritime Museum

The exhibition has been previewed and reviewed positively. Maev Kennedy at the Guardian focused on Hogarth as well as Harrison, noting the rich variety of objects on display. In the Times [£], Libby Purves said that the story “is elegantly and excitingly displayed”.

Richard Dunn, the lead curator (and my co-author), and Katy Barrett did sterling work talking to these and other journalists. They were also interviewed in an excellent slot on Front Row and Richard did a great job on BBC London. I helped out on launch day, and had also written a piece for BBC History Magazine’s July issue. The book has brought in some nice reviews too – there are two on Amazon so far (4 and a very nice 5 star) and this one on Robin’s Reviews, which calls it an “excellent, elegant book”.

All very pleasing, but the work is a long way from over. There are lots of events for Longitude Season at Royal Museums Greenwich. Have a look at the link to see what’s on. I personally (so far…) will be doing the following:

  • There are all sorts of things going on at the “Dark & Stormy” Late at the National Maritime Museum on 24 July, but Richard and I will be there to give gallery tours and/or Pecha Kucha presentations
  • 25-26 July is the Longitude Project conference at the NMM, Longitudes Examined, in which I’ll be on the final discussion panel
  • I will be joining David Barrie, author of Sextant, for a book event and signing at Waterstones Trafalgar Square on 27 August (TBC)
  • On 30 August I will be giving a walking tour to reveal Longitude in Georgian London
  • In an event co-orgainised with the Royal Society on 25 September, I will be joining Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, in a discussion about the old longitude story and the new Longitude Prize
  • I will be one of a team (including Simon Schaffer and Joe Cain) delivering a Science and Empire study day on 18 October 
  • On 30 October I will be giving one of the Maritime Lectures at the NMM (probably on Nevil Maskelyne’s contribution to the longitude story, since I hope the collection of essays on him that I have edited will be out by then).

I’m looking forward to all of this, but seeing it all written out is a little daunting! A lesson to share is not to take on a new lectureship in the same year as you have to deliver books, exhibitions and a large number of events – I also have a significant amount of preparation to do for my new autumn teaching (not to mention some chapters and reviews to deliver over the summer).

Busy? Just a bit…

Longitude in Lisbon

Cross-posted from the Longitude Project Blog.

I have just returned from a visit to Lisbon, where I had been invited to speak about the Longitude Act and project at the Seminário Nacional de Historia da Matemática. An added bonus of the visit was that an exhibition marking the tercentenary of the first Longitude Act had just opened at the Museu da Marinha.

It was a small display on the first floor that succeeding in getting across many of the key points about the Act, the various contenders for rewards and the Portuguese context. There were three cases of books, tables and charts, two of navigational instruments and a series of wall text and graphic panels.

The first panel was welcome reading, pointing out a long history, several valid areas of research and the development of two of these – the chronometer and lunar distances – as workable solutions in the second half of the 18th century. Although John Harrison was mentioned in the panel dealing with the development of timekeepers, the exhibition did not present either him or chronometers as the most significant part of the story.

IMG_0145

Other panels were devoted to the navigational methods used before the Act, magnetic variation, Jupiter’s satellites, lunar distances, chronometers and the Portuguese context. The last of these included the role of Jupiter’s satellites in settling longitudes on land, especially those that had been contested by Spain and Portugal.

IMG_0147Objects included an altaziumth compass (to measure magnetic variation), a telescope (linking to Jupiter’s satellites, but not a type that could have been used for this tricky observation) a box chronometer and several instruments for astronomical observation.

Included among the printed material were books on navigation, ephemerides and almanacs. Among them were an 18th-century edition of the Nautical Almanac, a French account of testing timekeepers at sea, and several Portuguese ephemerides, including those based on the observations of the observatory at Coimbra University.

Two early charts on display also made use of a Portuguese prime meridian, and theIMG_0152 19th-century almanacs clearly played on a sense of history – a reminder of Portugal’s stellar role in maritime navigation in the past – and a claim to a central position in the globe, marking the division of the two hemispheres and the old and new worlds.

I got a good sense of the importance of Portugal’s maritime past to the nation during my visit to Lisbon. The conference was held at the Escola Naval where naval history and, by extension, the histories of navigation, mathematics and astronomy, were very evident. While Greenwich and other maritime location in Britain tend to celebrate the 18th-century Navy above all, many sites in Lisbon have (mostly 20th-century) paintings, mosaics and statues to the heroic navigators of the 15th and 16th centuries.

I was fascinated to learn about the myth-making surrounding the Sagres “School of Navigation“, supposedly founded by Henry the Navigator, and also the extent to which the regime of the 20th-century dictatorship had consciously developed and celebrated this heroic maritime and imperial history – to the benefit of institutions like the Naval School, observatory, museum and planetarium.

IMG_0149

Being a guest at the naval base, and visiting the naval museum (still directed by a uniformed naval officer, who was kind enough to guide me around), was a truly memorable experience. I particularly enjoyed being entertained over lunch in the officers’ dining room with stories of the school, and having to teach and learn lunar navigation techniques.

The saying in the Portuguese Navy is that “the moon lies”, emphasising all the many things that can go wrong with instruments, observations and calculations, especially when officers are less and less used to performing them. However, the tables and sextants are still there as back up, not least because of concern about the ease with which GPS signals can be blocked or (more dangerously) tampered with.

Best of all, I was told a story of a ship’s commander, making for a large island but hampered by very poor weather and the loss of one navigation system after another. Left with just radar and dead reckoning, for a moment the moon appeared and he took his chance to take observations. Making his calculations, he couldn’t believe the result: “the moon lies”, he said to himself. But, continuing on his course, the island still didn’t appear and, eventually, he decided to go back to the lunar observation and try his luck – radar soon picked up the target destination.

It sounded like the tale of an old salty sea dog but, later that day, I met the man himself. He was in youthful middle age. The moon sometimes lies but, it turns out, sometimes, even now, she can still be pretty helpful.

 

Longitude Season has started…

There has already been plenty of longitude on this blog, The H Word and the Longitude Project blog, so apologies that there is more to come. This has all been leading up to 2014, the tercentenary of the first Longitude Act, and the start of Longitude Season at Royal Museums Greenwich. It seems like a good idea to put in one place where we’ve been and some of what’s happening this year.

The Board of Longitude Project logo.
The Board of Longitude Project logo.

First came the Board of Longitude Project. A five year, AHRC-funded research collaboration between the National Maritime Museum and the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. The team is/was: Principal Investigator Simon Schaffer, Co-Investigators Richard Dunn (Senior Curator and Head of Science and Technology at NMM) and me; two postdocs (Alexi Baker and Nicky Reeves) and three PhD students (Katy Barrett, Eoin Phillps and Sophie Waring). Very shortly joining us as engagement officer is Katherine McAlpine.

Then came the brilliant digitisation project, a JISC-funded digitisation of the Board of Longitude archive, together with related papers from Cambridge University Library and the NMM. Because of its association with the research project and the Museum, this came with lots of add-ons beyond the scanning and listing, and you can read more on the site and at my Guardian post here.

This year is about delivery and public engagement: four exhibitions, two books and a conference (although there’ll be more scholarly books, collections and articles to come out of the project in following years).

Exhibitions

Already open at the Royal Observatory is Longitude Punk’d, which is a steampunk intervention (invasion?) into the courtyard and Flamsteed House that plays with existing spaces and displays, the themes of travel and longitude and with art/science, fact/fiction, real/fabricated. You can read more about it in this post by curator Heloise Finch-Boyer. It is inventive, playful and very funny, but can also confuse and is not necessarily to everyone’s taste. As a response to the problem of denuding the existing galleries in order to put on the main longitude exhibition (see below), it is really brilliant. Once the two exhibitions exist together I hope everyone will be happy! Hashtag is #LongitudePunk’d

Also at the Observatory is a small image and text display, Start to Satellites, about the development of satellite navigation, which takes the story of navigation well beyond the 18th and 19th one about longitude.

Next up will be the main event: Ships, Clocks & Stars: the Quest for Longitude, opening to the public on 11 July. It is an object-rich, historical telling of the story, supported by AV and interactives, with Richard Dunn as the lead curator, me (though my involvement has somewhat diminished since I left the museum) and an NMM team involving Kris Martin, Claire Warrior and Matt Lawrence. I hope it will be fab, and you will hear more anon! Hashtag is #ShipsClocksStars

Last to open will be Art and Science of Exploration, a rehang in The Queen’s House that focuses on the art surrounding the voyages of James Cook. It will be the first opportunity to have Stubbs’s kangaroo and dingo properly on show, alongside paintings by Hodges and Webber. In many ways it will be a natural extension of the main exhibition, which features a section on Cook’s voyages, a key testing ground for new longitude techniques. Hashtag is #ArtSciEx

There will be lots of events on during the run of the exhibitions, so keen an eye on the website. The hashtag for the season as a whole is #WhereOnEarth.

Books

The official book accompanying the exhibition has been written by Richard Dunn and me, and is published by Collins. Called Finding Longitude, it is already available on Amazon for pre-order. It’s available on Kindle and a paperback edition will be sold in the exhibition shop (with luck the hardback trade edition will also make it to paperback?). This follows the same narrative as the exhibition, taking the story well beyond Sobel’s John Harrison focus, and is beautifully illustrated with historical painting and objects. It is out on 19 June.

Out in the autumn is a collection of essays on Nevil Maskelyne, published by Hale Books, called Maskelyne: Astronomer Royal. I have edited it and there are chapters and sections by me, plus chapters by Jim Bennett, Mary Croarken, Nicky Reeves, Rory McEvoy, Alexi Baker, Caitlin Homes and Amy Miller, largely coming out of the symposium we held back in 2011. This should also be well-illustrated with images from the NMM’s collections and, although not in any way replacing Derek’s Howse’s biography of Maskelyne, adds some interesting different angles.

Conference 

The big conference for the project, and the exhibition, is Longitudes Examined: Tercentenary Conference on the History of the Board of Longitude and the Determination of Longitude at Sea. The programme is now available online and looks brilliant (I’m not speaking, although will be part of the final discussion panel, so I’m allowed to say that)! 

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.

 

Preparing for the transit

I have recently been working on a small display at the Royal Observatory (opening next month) called Measuring the Universe. Despite being small-scale the topic is – in every sense – vast. We are trying to cover the history of measurements of the scale of the solar system, the distance to the nearest stars, the space between galaxies and to the Cosmic Microwave Background. This takes us from the Earth to the edge of the known universe, and from Greeks to researchers today. [Read more]

Objects and storytelling

Some weeks ago on the Medical Museion blog, Thomas Soderqvist wrote an interesting and, perhaps, provocative post on Narrativity in exhibition making, suggesting that “the current enthusiasm” for stories, storytelling and narrative in object displays “is problematic”. As an historian, this idea fits into my training: I understand where Thomas is coming from and largely […]

Fictional science

Sphere and stand - D7960_1
One of the few objects included in the exhibition was John Russell's 1797 Selenographia. Image (c) National Maritime Museum.

Yesterday, I went to the British Library’s exhibition on science fiction, Out of this World, which does an immensely good job of making exhibition cases displaying little but books interesting and engaging. There are graphics, a select number of objects, music and speech recordings, digital interactives and some large-scale sculptures to keep anyone from three years up entertained – as proven by the fact that my son was sufficiently distracted to allow me a good look at the main content. It is, though, that core – the words and illustrations in books, comics, graphic novels that have played with notions of science, our futures, extra-terrestrial life, parallel or alternate realities – that is the real and justifiable draw.

I am not, I must admit, a huge Sci-Fi fan, but the ideas it includes are undeniably fascinating,Read More »