PhD scholarship available in history of science (and more)

There are lots of opportunities available this year at the University of Kent’s School of History for anyone looking for funding for a Masters (taught or research) or PhD. See the funding opportunities page here.

Readers of this blog will be particularly interested in the funding available for the MA in History of Science, Medicine, Environment and Technology or MSc in Science, Society and Communication. As well as a dedicated £5000 scholarship students for the former can also apply for the full scholarship for MA study within the School.

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We have always been modern, and it has often scared us

Cross-posted from The H Word blog.

Boy with a tablet: advertising innovation technology

The idea that our world and even our minds are being made radically different by new technologies, above all the internet and social media, is everywhere. On Friday in these very pages, Jonathan Freedland wrote, “I once thought the world of the internet would be the same as before, only faster. In fact, it’s altering every corner of human life.”

He worries, particularly, that memory, “a fundamental aspect of human life”, is endangered, and our ability to process information. He quotes Leon Wieseltier who is concerned that reading today “is under pressure from all this speed of the internet and the whole digital world”, and that we will thereby lose the benefits of this “cognitive, mental, emotional action”. We are, he says, “happily, even giddily, governed by the values of utility, speed, efficiency and convenience”.

There are shades here of Susan Greenfield and her warnings about the hideous consequences of using social media while wearing onesies, soelegantly discussed by some of my fellow Guardian Science bloggers.

Fortunately, Freedland is canny enough to add at the end, “Perhaps there was similar angst at the birth of the printing press,” although he somewhat undoes this excellent point by insisting that today’s dangers are somehow much more pervasive than any earlier examples of technological change. He was, however, also wise enough to retweet a link to a post from the webcomic xkcd on The Pace of Modern Life as a “corrective”.

In a series of quotes from the 1870s to 1915, it scotches the idea that people have only started to notice and worry about speed and modernity in recent times. Apparently in 1871 the art of letter-writing was dying. It was the art of conversation itself that was threatened in 1890. “We live at too fast a rate,” it was lamented in 1892 and in 1894 our fast and superficial reading threatened our ability to think deeply and create great works.

We were doomed (again). I could add several more quotes, many going back considerably further in time, showing that concern about speed, excess of information, novelty for novelty’s sake and the loss of manners, skills or knowledge have always been with us.

Back in the 18th century, Samuel Johnson complained of the excitement about innovation and how everything always had to be done in a new way. William Hazlitt hit many of these tropes in his 1825 The Spirit of the Age, seeing it marked by a love of fashion, change, and prejudice.Matthew Arnold wrote about “This strange disease of modern life, with its sick hurry, its divided aims.”

Cities, print, the novel (especially the serialised novel), steam ships, trains, telephones, magazines and more have all been held to be worrisome and probably dangerous to the well-being and tranquility of the young and impressionable. Lock up your women and servants!

They, we, society as a whole would be overwhelmed by words, lose the ability to discern good from bad, lose connections with family, lack a sense of time and distance, fail to appreciate the meaning of labour and, with that, wave goodbye to all sense of morality and value.

Making the point beautifully, is this piece in the New York Times yesterday by Tom Standage on Social Networking in the 1600s, which notes that contemporaries expressed fears about the addictive nature of the socialising that took place there. As Standage writes,

Among the first to sound the alarm, in 1677, was Anthony Wood, an Oxford academic. “Why doth solid and serious learning decline, and few or none follow it now in the University?” he asked. “Answer: Because of Coffea Houses, where they spend all their time.”

How familiar this sounds! While there may have been those who overdid the coffee and found themselves animatedly discussing and arguing over the news of the day to the detriment of their studies and businesses, others made vital connections with people and ideas.

There is nothing so old as warnings about modernity.

Rebekah can be found on Twitter @beckyfh losing track of time, ignoring her family and failing to meet her deadlines

School history: what worked for me

Much has already been said about the proposed new history curriculum. This piece by David Cannadine in the TLS is a good place to start, as is the Historical Association’s forum on the topic and, of course, Richard Evans in the FT. There is not much point in my adding to all this, but I did want to share something that looking at this contents-page of a curriculum made me recall.

As many of the critics of the proposed curriculum have pointed out, it all begins promisingly enough: it should allow children to “understand historical concepts such as continuity and change, cause and consequence, similarity, difference and significance”, and “how evidence is used rigorously to make historical claims, and discern how and why contrasting arguments and interpretations of the past have been constructed”. But what follows seems specifically-designed to undermine such aims, with a chronological list of names, abstract ideas and events that kids from as young as six are supposed to get through in just an hour a week.

There is much concern that this dry list, with often often age-inappropriate topics, will be a complete turn-off and that numbers taking history at GCSE will plummet. It will now be much harder for primary teachers to make history come alive by finding their local history, talking to people who remember past events, taking advantage of local museums, or discussing topics that fit the age of the children being taught – evacuation, for example, might be a powerful topic to discuss with children young enough not to be able to imagine leaving their parents. Instead, seven-year-olds will be discussing “concepts such as civilisation, monarchy, parliament, democracy, and war and peace”.

Thinking about what I don’t like about this curriculum got me thinking about my own experience of history at school. It didn’t make much of an impression on me at primary school: I got most of my history at home and on family trips to museums, monuments and galleries. It is this kind of thing, which many children will not have had, that Gove claims his education reforms make up for but, of course, it is never presented as a chronological ‘island story’. It involved going to places, asking questions, haphazard connections.

The little history I remember from primary school seemed equally haphazard, but that is no bad thing. You gain a sense of historical perspective not by slogging, over years, through a long chronology, but by thinking one day about Roman gladiators and then thinking about how different the world was when Henry VIII was on the throne, or when your house was built, or when aeroplanes were invented. The things that stick most in my mind had a connection to where I lived: the history of the city, the use of the buildings surrounding me. On one class visit to Edinburgh Castle, we dressed up as the French prisoners kept there during the Napoleonic Wars. We offered, as they had, our craftwork for sale and, of all things, sang the Marseillaise as we walked up to the gates.

At secondary school I started to really enjoy history, sometimes because of excellent teaching, sometimes in spite of it. Things were worst when we had to slog through a topic that covered a long period of history and when we were mostly obviously cramming in facts, people, dates and themes to prepare for exams. Things were best when we had discrete topics that we could cover in sufficient detail to get a feel for the period, the people involved and different perspectives.

Another post today from a fellow history of science curator – Charlie Connelly of the Science Museum – suggested one approach to counter that of Gove’s curriculum. This was to tell good stories, something with which many a watcher of TV documentaries and reader of popular histories would agree, not to mention many public historians and those who come to history outside the usual school and academic route. Charlie explains that it was good stories, even if ‘bad’ histories, like Sobel’s Longitude that got her to change her mind on history, having given up at 14 “finding it an unbelievably dry and tedious subject”.

I am a bit more doubtful, as readers of this blog will know, about using misleading stories as a hook. I also don’t recall “stories” being something that got me interested in history at school (although I do remember frequently getting a book called “100 Great Lives” out of the library over and again, undoubtedly a text Gove would have approved of). In fact, the thing that really excited me about history was that the more we know, the more we see that stories can be questioned. That was a powerful feeling.

Three lessons in my first year of secondary school stick out. For each of them the teacher prepared packs of images and texts and allowed us to go through them and draw our own conclusions, before class discussions and his conclusions. The first lesson was based on a fictional crime. We were given a range of evidence from the scene and about suspects and had to see if we could solve the crime. The next lesson did something similar, but with real images, newspaper reports, letters and statements, about the assassination of JFK. The final one looked at the assassination at Sarajevo.

For the real cases it became abundantly clear that the evidence we had was contradictory, that it could be very different in form and that different narratives could be created. This was exciting. We weren’t being taught facts, we were investigating, doing our own thinking and drawing our own conclusions or creating our own narratives based on the evidence we had. Aside from the fact that the evidence was given to us on coloured paper rather than our finding it ourselves in the archive, this really is a little bit like what real historians do.

It is also a little bit like what we all do, when we see the news, read newspapers, talk to friends and family and try to understand the world around us. These are the kinds of skills and the type of knowledge (not knowledge of facts but the knowledge that you are equipped to question or investigate) that school history can give to citizens and future voters. It goes without saying that they are also useful for many kinds of work. In what possible way can Gove’s curriculum compete with that?

Making it personal: historical over-identification

Cross-posted from The H Word blog.

King Richard III

Richard III enthusiast Philippa Langley with a reconstructed face of the monarch
at the Society of Antiquaries in London. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA


Historians attempt to be objective in their reading of sources, even as we admit the hopelessness of the task. We may succeed in keeping our minds open in the search for answers, but we inevitably frame our questions in response to contemporary concerns. This is what makes our work meaningful and is, in any case, unavoidable in research of any kind. But what about when it becomes personal?

At the end of my viva, I admitted to my thesis examiners that one of the historical figures that I had studied had been a favourite. When surprise was expressed, I was pleased that I had managed to avoid obvious favouritism. I had acted professionally and had successfully put my personal feelings and commitments to one side.

This need to keep a professional distance was one of the reasons why some parts of Monday night’s Channel 4 documentary about the uncovering of Richard III’s skeleton were uncomfortable viewing. In particular Philippa Langley, Secretary of the Scottish Branch of theRichard III Society, was openly emotional about the deceased monarch, and clearly partial. This was not, she was sure, the face of a tyrant.

Langley deserves credit for driving the project forward (although we might judge this differently if, like the Spitfires in Burma, the king had turned out not to be in the car park). Although her penchant for feelings, signs and symbols (the ‘R’ painted on the tarmac, the desire to drape the remains with a royal standard) were a little extreme, she is far from alone in her attitude to Richard’s memory. As the Richard III Society states, it has “been working since 1924 to secure a more balanced assessment of the king” than that coloured by Tudor propaganda.

There are “several thousand” members of the Society, and they take a high-minded view of their mission. The website quotes their patron, the current Duke of Gloucester, in saying that they share “a faith that even after all these centuries the truth is important. It is proof of our sense of civilised values that something as esoteric and fragile as reputation is worth campaigning for”.

The Channel 4 documentary showed how seriously, and how personally, many of the members identify with this. As Tim Skellett wrote in a post reflecting on the academic response to the Richard III announcement, “Richard III has become – rightly or wrongly – a symbol of truth-seeking and resistance to propaganda”. The meaning of such symbols is a fascinating topic of historical research in its own right.

Exposing injustice is a key element for generating interest and enthusiasm beyond the academy. If someone usually held in high regard (Tudor monarchs, Shakespeare) is thought responsible for the oppression of a rediscovered, wronged hero, then identification with and emotional attachment to the story can become particularly intense. This is true of the mission to rescue Richard, and in history of scienceexamples are Robert Hooke and Nikolai Tesla, seen as victims of Isaac Newton and Thomas Edison respectively.

These individuals are now championed strongly by non-academics, taking up scholarly evidence that the reputation of these individuals had been undermined by previous writers of history. It has become the business of history to question sources, find hidden stories and ask how history might be rewritten. This is, itself, the result of changing attitudes to authority. When, back in the 1830s, there was an attempt to rescue John Flamsteed’s reputation from Newton’s tyranny, political, class and religious allegiances were closely bound to a discussion about personalities and science.

If, however, the research becomes a mission there is a risk of tipping the scales too far. Just because someone’s reputation has been eclipsed by enemies, it does not follow that they were a saint. This simply replaces one set of uncritically-accepted heroes with another. Richard III becomes incapable of acts that would have been perfectly normal in his circumstances; Hooke becomes the inventor and discoverer of almost everything.

Perhaps it is the awareness of the need to resist the impulse to identify with your characters that makes professional historians less forgiving than they might otherwise be of such enthusiasm, even while we make use of it in supporting our research and preservation of heritage. And yet we are only human, and I, for example, have found myself going some way down the line toward rescuing Nevil Maskelyne’s reputation, after, in the process of reviving John Harrison’s reputation, Dava Sobel’sLongitude unfairly presented him as a villain.

I do my best to keep my judgements sound, and ask myself why it should matter that Maskelyne seems to have been, in fact, a rather nice man. After all, that favourite figure in my postgraduate research wasAugustus De Morgan – not only for his jokes and doodles, but for his constant emphasis on the historian’s necessary attempt at impartiality.

Getting women into history and science is great, but where are the men?

Cross-posted from The H Word.

Now that Ada Lovelace day – which seeks to highlight inspirational stories about women in science – is safely over, I can mention something about it that concerns me. It is a broader concern than this one day, and is basically this: where were the men?

As I explained in an earlier post, I am all for seeking out women’s stories in history, because it gives us a different and equally important perspective on how science happens. I also showed, in the context of Wikipedia editing, that it is hugely important for women to be making and sharing knowledge. However, I am concerned by the fact that the two things seem so often to have to go together. Women should be writing about women.

In fact, men and women should be writing about men and women (and boys and girls, animals and instruments, seas and skies, or whatever). I think it would be hard to disagree with this point, and yet so often we find ourselves positioned against this.

I very happily went along last Tuesday to host an Ada Lovelace special for PubSci, to hear several women speaking about the women in history that helped provide inspiration in their scientific careers. But I would have loved it if there had been one or two men speaking about women too. (Though many thanks to the men who organised and attended the event!)

In my academic career, writing about gender is something that has both had an appeal and something I have purposely avoided. After having written my undergraduate dissertation on women in 17th-century drama, I was keen not to find myself pigeonholed as a woman who only wrote about women and found myself for some time focusing fairly squarely on the men of science who formed the core of my postgraduate research.

Fairly or unfairly, my sense was that this reinforcement of the view that women’s history is by and for women can serve to trivialise both the makers and subjects of that research. It becomes a niche, when it should be an integral part.

The same danger can arise when all the work and publicity about bringing women into research/academia/politics/business is delivered by women. If we agree that it is important that female voices should be much better represented in a host of important and influential places, then that is a concern for everyone.

That it should be a shared concern is the reason why I do not agree with those (men) who complain about women-only shortlists, training sessions aimed at women, or the need to create “binders of women” that can be waved under the nose of politicians suffering female-selective blindness. But these things should be endorsed, created and delivered by men as well as women, until such future time that these particular distinctions cease to hold such significance in the workplace.

(Pseudo)scientific history?

Cross-posted from The H Word.

There have been many writers who have claimed that history can be, or should be, scientific. Different things are meant by this, of course, and such statements are provoked by different motivations, although generally they trade on the perceived successes, rewards, professionalism and certainty of the sciences.

There have, historically, been two opposing trends in “scientific history”. In one case the claim is that patterns and laws can be found if the historic record is studied in the right way. The ideal model has variously been Newtonian physics, statistics or mathematics. In the other, the “scientific” element is careful observation and recording, in the manner of natural history. These approaches produce radically different histories, and can underlie very different attitudes to, for example, the importance of individual agency.

Looking for broad patterns, or for the detailed “facts” among the archival or tangible remains of history, are natural impulses, found throughout humanity’s attempts to understand or make use of the past. The claim of being “scientific” is a more recent phenomenon, dating from the cultural success of science in the 19th century.

I have written a couple of posts on my former blog relating to these 19th century debates, including in a review of Ian Hesketh’s book The Science of History in Victorian BritainHenry Buckle is, here, the example of broad-sweep pattern-finding, while JR Seeley and the new breed of professional academic historians looked for legitimacy by focusing on detailed examination of primary sources.

I do not believe that history can predict the future (although I certainly think that important lessons can be learned) but, as Hesketh suggested to me on Twitter, some sort of proof of patterns would seem to be suggested by the regular revival of such approaches.

The latest comes from Peter Turchin of the University of Connecticut, who coined the term “cliodynamics” in 2003 and was recently interviewed for Nature. The approach, which uses mathematical modelling to analyse interactions between and long-term trends in social and demographic systems, has a number of advocates and there has even been a journal since the end of 2010.

As the Wikipedia article on cliodynamics suggests, its practitioners attempt “to explain ‘big history’ – things like the rise of empires, social discontent, civil wars, and state collapse”. Things, therefore, that capture the popular imagination, that might just convince those in power that this is useful knowledge and – significantly – things that academic historians, focused on primary sources and “micro-histories”, have perhaps tended to neglect.

post on the History Today blog by Paul Lay suggests it is a kind of pseudoscience, adding, “Given the way in which mathematical modelling, using past data to predict future trends, has brought the global economy to its knees, this may not be the best time to introduce such methods to the more pragmatic discipline of history.”

Further doubts are voiced at Scientific American blogs, with Maria Konnikova’s post, “The humanities aren’t a science: stop treating them like one”.

I will admit that I have not read Turchin’s detailed work, or the other papers in the journal, and so my comments are based on the Nature interview and a 2008 article he wrote, again in Nature. His opening gambit here would do little to endear him to historians:

What caused the collapse of the Roman Empire? More than 200 explanations have been proposed, but there is no consensus about which explanations are plausible and which should be rejected. This situation is as risible as if, in physics, phlogiston theory and thermodynamics coexisted on equal terms.

The recent interview notes that academic historians are deeply sceptical about cliodynamics. This is not (just) a knee-jerk defence against interlopers from the sciences claiming that they know better than those who have trained long and hard in the ways of more standard approaches to history. There are many historians today who understand that other disciplines can offer us a number of useful tools. But their experience and training also helps them to understand that historical data is a complex business.

Turchin writes that his analysis is based on his collections of “quantitative data on demographic, social and political variables for several historical societies”, but, strikingly, gives no indication here of what his sources might be. The interview states that he and colleagues drew “on all the sources they can find – historical databases, newspaper archives, ethnographic studies”, and, from these, somehow locate factors such as “indicators of corruption … and political cooperation”.

Just how, I wonder, do they do that, across several cultures and vast stretches of time, with any degree of confidence? The detailed studies of historians have amply demonstrated that information contained in their sources cannot be taken on trust or treated equally. We need to have detailed understanding of the terminology of the period, their methods of collecting information, their political interests in sharing (or hiding) it and a sense of who was writing, who reading and why.

Turchin’s interpretation of his results is also pretty strange. He claims that his work has revealed regular 50-year cycles of political violence in the United States: that it was “almost absent in the early 19th century, increased from the 1830s and reached a peak in around 1900. The American Civil War occurred during this period of growing unrest. The instability then subsided during the 1930s, and the following two decades were remarkably calm. Finally, in the 1960s, political violence increased again.”

One has to wonder just what “political” and “violence” mean here, let alone “50-year cycle”. And, just because the Civil War was within the country, why is it counted and the 1812 and Second World Wars ignored?

Treating data like this and pulling out results like these seems to do neither science nor history any favours.

Crimes against history: the literary imaginations of Figes and Froude

A few days ago, there was an article in The Nation, by Peter Reddaway and Stephen F. Cohen on ‘Orlando Figes and Stalin’s Victims‘. It presents the evidence against Figes regarding claims of inaccuracy and invention in his 2007 book The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia, revealed largely as a result of checking against archived interviews by the publishers of a planned Russian edition.

Because these sources and/or their relatives are still living, the question of fidelity to the sources is particularly charged. In addition, the politics of Russia and opponents of the regime make much of the content a live issue. There is, therefore, an interesting question of whether anyone would have cared, or checked, had this in fact been a book about the longer-distant past.

That said, the question of Figes’s reputation for truth-telling has also been a matter for scrutiny, above all because of the revelation that he had written negative reviews of the works of rivals and a positive review of his own book on Amazon. Thus Rachel Polonsky’s Molotov’s Magic Lantern was described as “the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever published”, and The Whisperers was declared “beautiful and necessary”, written by an author with “superb story-telling skills”.

There is something incredibly fascinating about such tales of ambition, pride, fraud and revelation. However, laying that aside (and suggesting you read the article linked above for more), I was particularly struck by an undertone in the claims of Figes and charges of his accusers that relates to views of what history can or should be, and struck a direct chord with the debates of the 19th century that I am in the middle of reading about in Ian Hesketh’s The Science of History in Victorian Britain (which I hope to finish and review here very shortly).

It is, above all, a question of the relationship between history and storytelling, or, to put it in 19th-century terms, whether it is scientific or literary. Figes’s own anonymous and hugely positive comments about “story-telling skills” and the ‘beauty’ of the book  contrast very clearly with the accusations of Reddaway and Cohen: “mistakes”, “invention”, “misrepresenting”, “for dramatic purpose”, “cannot be fully trusted”. These defects are contrasted with what they call the “meticulous transcription” of interviews that were done on Figes’s behalf by the Memorial Society – their equivalent of Leopold von Ranke‘s archives revealing “wie es eigentlich gewesen”, what really happened.

It is all thoroughly reminiscent of the accusations thrown at one 19th-century historian, James Anthony Froude, by another, Edward Freeman. As Ian Hesketh shows, Freeman was incensed by Froude’s literary approach to history, claiming that his imagination led him to interpret all the (very real) archival work he had done in light of his desired narrative. Freeman wrote of Froude’s “Constant inaccuracy of reference”, blaming the “vagaries of narrative and judgement” on of “an inborn and incurable twist, which makes it impossible for him to make an accurate statement about any matter”. He made history fiction, and his account of Thomas Becket “the life of an imaginary being in an imaginary age”.

It was a vice that became known as “Froude’s disease” and, although the term is no longer recalled, the accusation can still be recognised. Froude, of course, was the more popular writer, but the newly-professionalising, discipline-defining historians like Freeman made a virtue of studies that were of interest only to other trained specialists. While readers may have sensed a past world brought to life, encouraged by the presence of references and original sources, “what passes for history in the hands of Mr. Froude is a writing in which the things which really happened find no place”.

I suspect Freeman was a little unfair. However he, Reddaway and Cohen similarly accuse their targets of having been led astray from the true path of history by desire to capture readers with a clear story. It is the strong belief in the validity of their view of the past that has led them to reinterpret the evidence, very possibly with the positive aim of creating a truer, more believable picture, rather than wishing to falsify the past or simply trying to write a best-seller.

The two sides put ‘truth’ in a different place. For these reviewers it is within the unadorned, uninterpreted archives; for the writers it is within the picture conjured up by the combination of their archival research, historical imagination and literary skill. There is merit in both views. Certainly, the kind of objective, disinterested history that Freeman advocated today seems unrealistic, and probably undesirable, but we do most certainly expect things in quotation marks to be accurate, and that references should point adequately to real physical, written or oral evidence.

Beware, all ye writers of popular history and literary non-fiction, of “Froude’s disease”, although it may yet be preferable to “Figes’s disease”.