Picturing science: teaching maths

Cross-posted from The H Word blog.

Detail from of a portrait of Thomas Weston

Seeing Alex Bellos’s ‘sconic sections’ in his post on combining baking and geometry, made me think of this lovely early 18th century mezzotint, recently acquired by the National Maritime Museum.

Sadly no foodstuffs are involved, but there is a prominently placed dissected cone, with ready-cut conic sections, in the left foreground. Alongside are some of the other essentials of the mathematical teacher: drawing instruments (today’s ‘geometry set’ known to all kids heading back to school in the autumn), diagram, textbook and writing materials. It is less pencil and squared paper, of course, and more quill and ink.

The portrait is of Thomas Weston, who from 1712 headed Weston’s Academy in Greenwich, which, in taking some pupils who were sons of pensioners at Greenwich Hospital, was one of the forerunners ofGreenwich Hospital School. The portrait was the frontispiece to his book, “A copy-book written for the use of the young-gentlemen at the Academy in Greenwich” (1726).

The text in the picture is a lecture, clearly titled Lectiones Astronomicae Lectio 12. Astronomy and mathematics were Weston’s specialty, especially as the basis to learning navigation. Before setting up his school, Weston had been an assistant to the Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed. At that time, he lived and worked at the Royal Observatory, an institution founded to help improve astronomical methods for finding longitude at sea.

There is another portrait of Weston, on the ceiling of the Painted Hall at Greenwich Hospital. Here he looks with admiration at Flamsteed, both in front of the mural arc that was, by the 1690s, the most significant instrument at the Observatory. Placed on a wall aligned north-south, it defined a Greenwich Meridian.

Portrait of Thomas WestonWhile I love the mathematical details in the foreground of this image, perhaps the most splendid thing about it is Weston, wearing a formal wig and, best of all, a striped dressing gown or banyan.

However, if the combination of food and science is more your thing, have a read of this post by Melanie Keene on the objects used to teach elementary astronomy. There are blueberries and oranges that might stand in for the relative sizes of planets but, even better, in the early 19th-century children’s book, Tom Telescope:

the movement of the earth around the sun was best explained as like that of a rotisserie chicken. This “common occurrence in a kitchen” showed how it was “far better for the bird [the earth] to turn round before the fire [the sun], than the fire to turn round the bird”.

Melanie will be saying more about the use of familiar objects in teaching science in the 18th and 19th centuries in her paper at the International Congress for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (iCHSTM) in Manchester next month.

My Royal Society talk: Maskleyne’s reputation

[Cross-posted from the Longitude Project blog]

Readers of this blog may be interested to listen to a talk I gave at the Royal Society last week. Audio and slideshow versions are available here. The talk was entitled “Hero or villain? Nevil Maskelyne’s posthumous reputation” and, while pointing out that ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ are hardly historiographically useful categories I discussed how Maskelyne has come to be most commonly known as the villain of the story of longitude.

I began by briefly introducing the man and his life, before discussing the two early and influential accounts of his life, which demonstrate the range of Maskleyne work and his high international reputation. These were a 1812 article inRees’s Cyclopaedia by Patrick Kelly, who was master of Finsbury Square Academy and an author on nautical astronomy, and the Eloge produced for the French Institute in 1813 by Jean Baptiste Joseph Delambre, permanent secretary for mathematical sciences, director of the Paris Observatory.

Kelly was one of Maskelyne’s close acquaintances and Delambre, according to Lalande in a letter to Maskelyne held in the NMM’s Caird Library, once considered Nevil “le dieu de l’astronomie”. It’s unsurprising that Maskelyne comes out well of these accounts, but it is typical that early 19th-century biography should be sympathetic to its subject and that it should be produced by friends, family or colleagues. They are the sources that were taken up, and thus my talk explored why and at what point the image of this significant figure of British science, who was acclaimed for his dedicated hard work and for making the Royal Observatory useful to the public, became one of elitism and obstructiveness.

As I hope I show, it can’t all be blamed on Sobel’s Longitude but, rather, dates back to earlier rediscoveries of John Harrison, and to horological histories that have tended to ignore significant aspects of the contemporary context.

My talk also dwells a little on my dual response to this. On the one hand there is an academic one that seeks to avoid historical goodies and baddies, to explore fully contexts and motivations and to replace simplistic accounts with more nuanced ones. On the other, there is a sense of injustice which, of course, must mirror that felt by those championing Harrison. There seems to be ample evidence that Maskelyne was a pretty nice, and fair, man but it’s difficult to know what to do with this knowledge! I hope, at least, that future displays at the Royal Observatory – Maskelyne’s home – can take advantage of the objects, manuscripts and accounts that the Museum has to reflect something of Maskelyne’s significance in his own time and his life with friends, colleagues and family as well as antagonists.

While over at the Royal Society’s list of history of science podcasts, do take a look at some of the others on offer. 18th-century enthusiasts will enjoy James Sumner’s “‘How should a chemist understand brewing?’ Beer and theory around 1800”; material culture/materials folk should listen to Susan Mossman on plastics; more on someone closely connected to the history of the Royal Observatory can be found in Frances Willmoth’s talk on Jonas Moore; early 17th-century instruments and clocks are discussed by Rebecca Pohancenik. And much, much more. Many thanks to Felicity Henderson at the Royal Society for inviting me to join them.