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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PhD scholarship in history of science

Is there anyone out there who would like to do a PhD in the history of science with me at the University of Kent? There is a scholarship available for just that – deadline 29 May. It will be based within the Centre for the History of the Sciences in the School of History.

Feel free to ask questions or discuss this further in the comments here, via email (address here) or @beckyfh on Twitter.

University of Kent 50th Anniversary Scholarship in the History of Science

The School of History is pleased to offer one 50th Anniversary PhD Research Scholarship beginning in September 2015. The successful candidate will be part of the Centre for the History of the Sciences and supervised by Dr Rebekah Higgitt. The proposed research must suit Dr Higgitt’s broad interests and, if appropriate, there would be the opportunity to be co-supervised by Dr Louise Devoy, Curator of the Royal Observatory Greenwich, and to make use of the object collections and other resources at Royal Museums Greenwich. Applications are particularly encouraged in the following areas:

  • History of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, and/or Royal Greenwich Observatory
  • Science and/or scientific training in the Navy, 17th-19th centuries
  • Museology and history of science
  • History of astronomy and observational sciences in the 17th-19th centuries
  • Scientific institutions and government funding in the 17-19th century
  • Science and the public in the 17th-19th centuries, including museums, publishing, performance, biography and satire

The deadline for receipt of applications eligible for this scholarship is 29 May 2015. Shortlisted applicants will be invited to a panel-led interview in June 2015.

For further details and application procedure see the listing at 

Edit: I should have clarified that the scholarship is open to UK, EU and overseas students. See the link above for further information and links.

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.

Happy birthday Robinson Crusoe: the fictional author of a “History of Fact”

Cross-posted from The H Word blog.

Daniel Defoe’s book was published 295 years ago today [25 April], marking the birth of the author Robinson Crusoe and a seriously playful entanglement of fact and fiction.

Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719)
Frontispiece and title page from original 1719 edition

I hope plans are afoot to celebrate the tercentenary of the publication of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe in 2019. With five years to go, however, 2014 also seems an apt time to take a look at this famous book, not least because this year is a celebration of all things Georgian: marking the accession of George I, we have the BBC’s Georgian Season, and exhibitions at the British Library and Queen’s Gallery. Signed just before George’s arrival, was the 1714 Longitude Act, the tercentenary of which is being marked with a Longitude Season at Royal Museums Greenwich.

Robinson Crusoe sits perfectly in the midst of this, highlighting new literary forms available to a growing reading public, and the interest in travel and the exotic at a time of expansion of maritime trade and empire.

While the book is seen today as an important precursor to the novel, as part of a new genre of realistic fiction, it was designed, at least in part, to confuse and to question. Robinson Crusoe was its purported author, not its title. The actual title of the first edition placed the book squarely in the realm of genuine (if sometimes embellished) travel narratives:

The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates. Written by Himself.

Full of geographical detail, with the “author” clearly identified, there was nothing to distinguish this as fiction. The picturesque image on the frontispiece pointed to the remarkable experiences to be related, but would have reminded readers of images of peoples from other parts of the world, shown as “other” but rendered strangely familiar by European artists, used to depicting European faces, landscapes and dress.

Defoe’s title is worth comparing to those of other travel and adventure narratives. For example, that published in 1681, by a real sea captain: Robert Knox of the East India Company. Alongside the experiences ofAlexander Selkirk, who spent four years on an uninhabited island until being rescued in 1709, Knox’s adventures and narrative have been seen as one of Defoe’s inspirations:

An Historical Relation Of the Island Ceylon, in the East-Indies: Together, With an Account of the Detaining in Captivity the Author and divers other Englishmen now Living there, and of the Author’s Miraculous Escape. Illustrated with Figures, and a Map of the Island. By Robert Knox, Captive there near Twenty Years.

Knox’s book had been published by Richard Chiswell, identified on the title page as “Printer to the Royal Society”. As was typical of that Society’s tactics for underscoring the trustworthiness of new knowledge, emphasis was placed on the status of the author, the importance of eye-witness accounts and personal observation, told in plain writing and, as a bonus, supported by a map and illustrations.

Knox’s “Truth”, “Integrity” and “Credit” were attested to in statements from the very credit-worthy Christopher Wren and the Governor, Deputy-Governor and 24 named members of the Court of Committees of theEast India Company, who included a fair sprinkling of baronets and knights. A preface by Robert Hooke lauded Knox’s efforts, not least for doing what the Royal Society repeatedly asked of travellers by sharing potentially useful observations and experience of foreign lands with the public.

Defoe naturally also made use of such devices, playing with his readers’ understanding of truth and credibility in a way that alarmed some but was so popular with the public that the book went through several editions in its first year. In a preface the book’s “editor” commended it to the public as “a just History of Fact”, noting that “The Story is told with Modesty, with Seriousness, and with a religious Application of Events to which Wise Men always apply them”.

Rather than as simply a novel, then, Robinson Crusoe should also be read as a hoax or, perhaps more accurately, as a satire on travel narratives and other texts attempting to present reliable knowledge. Whether readers took his fiction as truth, or they doubted it effects, it raised questions about the acceptance of the words put down, however plain the language, by other travellers, experimenters and observers. This uncertainty was, as much as the adventure and exoticism, part of the book’s appeal.

Crusoe is our perfect guide to this year of Georgian exploration.

Science fictions and the history of science

Cross-posted from Science Comma blog.

For those who are fans of sci-fi, or interested in how sci-fi plays into the history of science, there are some things you might want to take a look at.

Firstly, this Friday there is a free lunchtime lecture at the Royal Society on “The Royal Society and science fiction”, being given by Professor Farah Mendlesohn, who is head of department for English, Communication, Film and Media at Anglia Ruskin University. The blurb reads:

The lone (mad) scientist is a common trope in science fiction, but hidden away is a fascination with secret and semi-secret societies who work for the future of all mankind. This talk will look at the representation of the Royal Society in science fiction and fantasy as fact, fantasy and metaphor.

For those who can’t make it to London, the talk should be available, like the Society’s other events, as a video afterwards.

Secondly, yesterday saw the republication of the 1870-71 short story, The Brick Moon, by Edward Everett Hale. It is being published by Jurassic London, along with a new story, Another Brick in the Moon, by Adam Roberts. Details of the publication are available here, and also from this post by Richard Dunn, Senior Curator at Royal Museums Greenwich, who co-wrote the introduction with Marek Kukula, Public Astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich.

Cover of the newly published edition of The Brick Moon
Cover of the newly published edition of The Brick Moon

The original story is about an artificial satellite, the Royal Observatory, the Greenwich Meridian and possible solutions to the problem of finding longitude at sea. It is a perfect accompaniment to the Longitude Season, just getting underway in Greenwich.Secondly, yesterday saw the republication of the 1870-71 short story, The Brick Moon, by Edward Everett Hale. It is being published by Jurassic London, along with a new story, Another Brick in the Moon, by Adam Roberts. Details of the publication are available here, and also from this post by Richard Dunn, Senior Curator at Royal Museums Greenwich, who co-wrote the introduction with Marek Kukula, Public Astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich.

Finally, as well as a major exhibition on the longitude story (opening in July), this season also includes an art and fiction response. Already open at the Royal Observatory is Longitude Punk’d, an intervention in, or takeover of, the pre-existing longitude galleries. Author Robert Rankin and other artists and makers have come up with a whole range of more or less ludicrous or plausible ideas about solving longitude or alternative realities in which clock maker John Arnold made himself clockwork legs and Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne built an airship and hoped to contact parallel universes – just in case they knew his longitude. Read more from the curator here.

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).


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.


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.


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)! 

Cosmos and Giordano Bruno: the problem with scientific heroes

Cross-posted from The H Word blog.


Statue of Giordano Bruno, erected at Campo de' Fiori in Rome, 1889.
Statue of Giordano Bruno, erected at Campo de’ Fiori in Rome, 1889.

Although it’s not as big news in the UK as it has been in the US, readers of the Guardian science pages may have noticed that Carl Sagan’s classic series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage is being remade by Fox and presented by Neil deGrasse Tyson as Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.

Broadcast in the US last Sunday, I saw a lot of love being expressed on my Twitter timeline. However, it has also prompted some interesting comments from historians of science. We in the UK can see it for ourselves this Sunday (if we have access to the right channels), but here are some articles and posts that give food for thought.

In The Atlantic, Audra Wolfe looked at the Cold War context in which the original Cosmos succeeded, or could, at least, be credited by many with having kicked off a decade-long “popular science boom”. What the Cosmos effect actually was does not seem to have been measured but, even if real, Wolfe points out that times have changed. She argues that Cosmos Can’t Save Public Support for Science today, particularly if it is “weigh[ed] down with Cold War-era fantasies that confuse the public understanding of science with its appreciation.”

Other historians have been prompted to comment on Cosmos because, as in the original, history of science is part of the package. Much has been said about the importance the remake, as a high-profile broadcast that can reflect the extent to which science has moved on since 1980. History of science has also moved on: is this reflected in the new series?

The answer, it seems, is yes (a bit) and (mostly) no. In the first episode, a rather hefty portion of airtime (11 out of 43 minutes) is devoted to an animation on the life of Giordano Bruno. Burnt at the stake by the Roman Inquisition in 1600, he was there to play the role of scientific hero and martyr. It is an ill-fitting part for this idiosyncratic Dominican monk.

Laudably avoiding any temptation to snark, Meg Rosenburg took the sudden interest in this reasonably obscure figure as an opportunity to help those who might Want to Know More About Giordano Bruno. While Bruno’s cosmological poetry and mystical thought included heliocentrism, he was not, of course, a scientist, nor was he sentenced to death for “scientific” ideas or anything like “the nice-mannered, doe-eyed dissenter” that appears on the screen.

In fact, Bruno is so obviously a problematic choice as a scientific martyr that several non-historians have also picked up on the issue. Corey S. Powell in Discover Magazine suggested that Cosmos picked the wrong hero, and that another – even more obscure but significantly more astronomical – early Copernican, Thomas Digges, might have been a better bet. Hank Campbell at The Federalist picked the Bruno problem as the most significant of Five Things that Cosmos Gets Wrong.

Becky Ferreira at Motherboard carefully explained What Cosmos Gets Wrong About Giordano Bruno, the Heretic Scientist, although, as she notes, it was not all bad as the account “did a pretty good job of covering its butt by shoehorning in some of Bruno’s contradictions, like the fact that he was a crappy scientist (and many historians argue he shouldn’t be considered one at all).”

Yet, nevertheless, the overriding message appears to have been about heroic passion for truth against dogma and science versus religion. And, despite the nod the nuance, this is a case of turning history into parable.

This is problematic for many reasons, one of which is that it doesn’t exactly sit well with claims to champion evidence-based knowledge. Another is that hiding parts of Bruno’s story that undermine the image of the scientific martyr plays into the hands of those who are only too pleased to highlight what might appear to be anti-religious propaganda coming from the scientific and media establishment (thanks to Rosenburg for tweeting that link).

Historical figures who lived in a very different world, very differently understood, cannot be turned into heroes who perfectly represent our values and concerns without doing serious damage to the evidence. It reminds me of one of the 19th-century men of science-cum-historians I researched, who learned this lesson the hard way.

In 1831 David Brewster published a short biography of Isaac Newton, portraying him as a hero that represented everything the author wanted to say about the moral status of science and its practitioners, and how they should be supported in late Georgian Britain. A couple of decades later he produced a much expanded biography, this time based in part on the unpublished archive. Lo and behold: Newton was a nasty piece of work, he was unorthodox in his Christian belief and he was a dedicated alchemist.

Poor Brewster! Although, as a reviewer said, he attempted to “do his best” by his hero, he was sufficiently dedicated to the evidence to “admit” the faults in public. It undermined his overriding narrative and seems to have caused him real personal anguish. Let this be a cautionary tale against those who invest too much in their heroes – and a call for some evidence-based history to help us better understand what science has been, is now and could be in the future.


Captain Cook and Australia Day: invasion, exploitation and science

Cross-posted from The H Word blog, where this was first posted on 27 January 2014.

Captain Cook’s contested reputation casts him as imperialist villain or man of science. Whatever we think of him, the two roles are not mutually exclusive

Statue of Captain Cook at Greenwich
Statue of Captain James Cook outside the National Maritime Museum. Photograph: David Iliffe/Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday [26 January] was Australia Day and, thanks in part to social media, it seems to have been more overtly contested than ever before. As a much-shared piece on this website stated, for many Australia Day is a time for mourning, not celebration. Marking the anniversary of the arrival of the 11 British ships known as the First Fleet in 1788, its choice as a national holiday has long been contested. In my Twitter feed, #invasionday was more prevalent than the trending Happy Australia Day.

As a historian of science working on the history of 18th-century navigation, I’ve noticed how often Captain Cook appears as the symbol of the British invasion. Yesterday, for example, Australian comedian Aamer Rahman joked on Twitter that he had a Cook-shaped piñata to celebrate the holiday (that wept white tears when hit) and, earlier in the week, Cook’s family cottage was graffitied with slogans, including “26th Jan Australia’s shame”.

This is odd, in some ways, as Cook died nearly a decade before the Fleet sailed. He did not invade or settle, nor, even, was his ship the first European contact with Australia. However, the fact that his cottage was vandalised in Melbourne, having been moved from Yorkshire in 1934, perhaps tells us almost everything we need to know about how Cook’s reputation has been welded to his brief visit to Australia and has been both near-deified and villainised ever since.

In illustration of the complexity of Cook’s legacy, ex-pat New ZealanderVicky Teinaki alerted me to a film on display at the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum in Yorkshire. The museum’s website describes it as “recording the reaction of contemporary communities to Cook’s legacy” and these, Vicky said, could be generalised into three groups: “acknowledging he was a great & brave explorer, anger at the white man diseases he brought, or ‘better English than French’”.

The reaction from this side of the world depends, I think, on whether Cook is viewed as the military man – a blue-coated, gun-toting officer of the Royal Navy – or the explorer and man of science. He was, of course, both, for the categories are not mutually exclusive. On the Endeavourvoyage he was paid by and carried out the instructions of the Navy andthe Royal Society of London. He was both a vessel commander and one of two astronomers charged with carrying out a range of observations, including the 1769 transit of Venus and longitude determinations.

Those who cast Cook as a man of science note not only his ability in astronomical observation and mathematical calculation, but also his careful observation of the new lands, flora, fauna and peoples he encountered. Regarding Cook’s journal descriptions of the latter, theNational Library of Australia is careful to note that “Lord Morton, President of the Royal Society, had advised Cook by letter to treat with respect the Indigenous people he encountered and to communicate peacefully with them.”

Yet it is obvious that all the science undertaken on his and similar voyages was part and parcel of the process of exploration and colonisation. The transit of Venus observations were bound up with attempts to improve navigation and cartography, which, along with botany, geography and ethnography, provided information about how best to exploit new territories.

Cook is, perhaps, less directly worthy of vilification than those who developed policies for colonisation and who governed societies that forgot the caution and respect that Morton had urged. Equally, however, he is among those to whom we might attach collective guilt for their role in making empire and exploitation possible.

If Cook is guilty in this way, were not also many of those who stayed at home? Morton and the Royal Society, who linked their enterprise firmly to Britain’s imperial interests? John Harrison and the Commissioners of Longitude, who looked for ways to make long-distance sea voyages and the data they brought home more reliable?

This train of thought led me to recall an interview I recently heard on Radio 4, with a scientist brought in to discuss the Moon’s potentially exploitable natural resources. How might we manage the claims of different nations (limited, in theory, by international agreement) and private companies (currently unlimited in law) to these minerals? Might this lead to conflict, injustice and over-exploitation?

The planetary scientist pushed the questions away. We do not yet know if anything useful is there, he said, and no one yet has the resources to make lunar mining profitable. His aim is simply to find out what is there, not to worry about the consequences. Given what history tells us, it might seem better to resist looking. At the very least, it seemed shockingly blasé to say that any future conflicts, rivalries and ruination would have nothing at all to do with the curiosity-driven likes of him.

Cook could not foresee the results of his actions. Understanding of the transmission of disease or the consequences of introducing alien species was limited; rivalry for worldwide empire was, as yet, in its infancy, and belief in the virtue of spreading European knowledge and values was firm. Cook is blamed because of hindsight, a little of which should always prompt a greater sense of responsibility today.

Women in science: a difficult history

Cross-posted from The H Word blog, where this post first appeared on 15 October 2013.

Caricature of women attending a 19th-century meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science
Caricature of women attending a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.


Today, as you’ll probably see from many tweets and blog posts, is Ada Lovelace Day. As the Finding Ada website explains, this

aims to raise the profile of women in science, technology, engineering and maths by encouraging people around the world to talk about the women whose work they admire.

Many of the talks and posts that mark the day will be about mentors and leaders in science today. Many will highlight the sometimes overlooked work of women in the history of STEM.

As I discussed on this blog last year, I find myself somewhat conflicted about Ada Lovelace Day and similar projects that focus on highlighting women in the history of science. On the plus side, I am wholeheartedly supportive of the attempt to encourage young women to think about scientific careers and to appreciate the work of women in the past, when opportunities were even more circumscribed. I am also glad to see stories from the history of science getting wider attention.

However, I am also wary. In celebratory mode, there is a tendency to overplay the work that the women highlighted actually did. There is no better example of this than Lovelace herself, who is wrongly credited with writing the first computer program. Likewise, just as with the heroic “great man” mode of history, focusing on individuals can hide the extent to which science is always a collaborative enterprise. Finally, although some women are rescued from the background shadows, other individuals and groups, equally deserving of attention, remain ignored.

As a historian, I am always likely to be suspicious of the use of history to serve particular purposes, whether that is to get more women into ormore funding for British science. Laudable though those aims might be, there is a risk that the historical evidence will be selected or distorted to suit the current purpose.

Certainly there were (are) remarkable women in all spheres of life, but the more important story is the one that explores why there were so few and how and why their talents – and those of whom we’ll never hear – were wasted. While it’s good to encourage girls and women to have the confidence to succeed in science or elsewhere, we also need them to look at the societies that have made, and still make, this a difficult task.

It always strikes me that should women of the past read some of what is written about them today, they would be hugely surprised and perhaps even offended. Before the 20th century, and often after, women who did scientific work tended to present themselves as a support to science or men rather than as pioneers. Although this is a reflection of the patriarchal society in which they lived, and they may sometimes have said things they did not privately believe in order to appear acceptable, it was their chosen self-presentation.

Recently, for example, a post was published that claimed that William Whewell had coined the word “scientist” to describe Mary Somerville. The response suggested that this is something that people really wanted to believe. However, while it is true that the first published appearance of the word was in a review of Somerville’s book On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences (1834), neither Whewell nor Somerville would have dreamed of its being applied to her. Women, Somerville suggested, did not have original ideas, but the female mind might, as Whewell wrote, provide a “peculiar illumination” in explaining the ideas of others.

Somerville undertook aspects of science that were “women’s work”: writing, translation, popularisation. She also frequently highlighted her role as a wife and mother. Others, who approved of and supported her, did likewise. The American astronomer Maria Mitchell met Somerville and wrote:

I could not but admire Mrs Somerville as a woman. The ascent of the steep and rugged path of science had not unfitted her for the drawing-room circle; the hours of devotion to close study have not been incompatible with the duties of wife and mother; the mind that has turned to rigid demonstration has not thereby lost its faith in those truths which figures will not prove.

Somerville and others underlined the distinction between men and women’s minds and appropriate spheres of activity because of the society in which they lived. Somerville was a supporter of women’s education and it was important to show that learning mathematics and the sciences would not turn young women into unattractive, barren spinsters. Those campaigning for women’s suffrage had a similar choice: emphasise your acceptable femininity or reinforce the stereotypes of Punch caricatures.

We like to think that we have moved on. In many ways we have: women in the UK can vote, be educated and enter careers and remain in them even after getting married or having children. Yet they are still radically underrepresented in the most highly paid and esteemed positions, and overrepresented at the other end of the scale. We are, as Alice Bell explained yesterday, still in a society that asks for female intelligence to be mitigated with the use of lipstick and a focus on domestic details.

By all means celebrate individuals, but understand them as they would have understood themselves. Make sure to think of the society in which they operated and look hard at what has and what has not changed.

Radio: Seven Ages of Science

Cross-posted from The H Word blog.

Staircase inside the Monument to the Great Fire of London

Staircase in the Monument, London, designed by Robert Hooke. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Poised at my computer last night [6 August 2013], I listened to, and eagerly typed notes on the first episode of a new series on BBC Radio 4 that looks at the history of British science. Presented by Lisa Jardine, it will present Seven Ages of Science, kicking off with an Age of Ingenuity in Restoration England.

Much of the episode centred on Jardine’s “personal hero”, Robert Hooke, and argues that the ingenuity, interest and development of new explanations of the workings of nature that arose in the late 17th century came out of the thriving world of machines and instruments, centred on London’s west end.

Those who know Jardine’s work won’t be surprised that the episode opened at the Monument in London. It was Hooke and Christopher Wren’s memorial to the Great Fire of London, a statement of confidence that London would be rebuilt and thrive again and, as Jardine says, “a super-size scientific instrument”. It symbolised their belief that experimental science would lead to a renaissance of city and nation.

The Monument was to be a place for experiments with pendulums and a tube for a giant zenith telescope. While it wasn’t successful, Hooke spent a lifetime collaborating with makers and artisans to contrive instruments and experiments that would entertain the gentlemen of the Royal Society, pick apart the mechanisms of God’s creation and prove useful to mankind.

While Hooke and then Newton receive the main focus in this episode, the point is several times well-made that not only did artisans provide the tools and metaphors they adopted in the new experimental philosophy, but that they and a whole range of less well-known practical observers and mathematicians were vital collaborators. Newton’s faux-modest puff about “standing on the shoulders of giants” hid the fact that his work was absolutely dependent on a large network of other individuals.

There are, as Jardine says, no lone scientific heroes and eureka moments here. Newton’s apple story “could not be further from the truth”. The focus of the series is on weaving science back into the world rather than allowing it to be viewed apart from everyday life. The point is that scientists were/are “nurtured by the world in which they lived” and, rather than how science changed the world, the series will highlight how the world changed science.

This is history of science by (and I sincerely hope not just for) historians of science, featuring Simon SchafferFelicity HendersonPatricia Faraand Jim Bennett as well as Jardine. We have the clock-maker Thomas Tompion standing alongside Hooke, observation alongside theory, technology advancing science, entertainment of the wealthy as an essential element of the development of experiment, and politics shaping ideas.

All of this comes as a welcome relief – nay a deep draught of pure water from the deepest well – to this historian of science. In a guest post on my other blog today, John van Wyhe, an expert on Darwin and Wallace, explains what can happen to programmes on the history of science when delivered (and researched) by scientists and non-specialists. They all too often are. For every Schaffer Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams, we have series on the history of science presented byphysicistsmathematicians and biologists.

This is not to say that they all do a rotten job, nor that they might not be interested in and sensitive to history as well as science, but it tends to shape the basic arc of the programme’s narrative. It becomes, almost inevitably, a looking back from present to past that picks out the route by which ideas arrived at those we have today.

While I appreciate that there may not be enough historians of science out there with the talent and charisma to present on TV (though we know Schaffer does and Henderson, Fara, Bennett and Jardine could all, I suspect, take on more than radio or TV talking head roles), the history in history of science programming should be taken seriously more often.

Rather than the narrative always being about someone who knows the science finding out about where it came from in the past, why not (if you really can’t find an historian of science) shape it around an historian who knows the period finding out about the science?

I hope that Seven Ages of Science will help change assumptions about how history of science can be made interesting and what narratives it encompasses. I’ll be interested to see how far the “Seven Ages” conform to or challenge expectations. So far it sticks to the expected by not, for example, including the medieval world. I also wondered about the statements of this “Age” being particularly ingenious or moving particularly fast: I suspect any age could seem like that to those who were there or those who study it more closely than others.

Choices have to be made, of course, and this is a history of British science from the 17th century. It is the bread and butter of our discipline, and I am delighted that a wider audience is getting a chance to taste this wholesome fare.