Museum exhibits & workers homes

Since I am currently, ahem, “between museum jobs”, I thought I might start to use this space to do what I never seemed to have time for in my curatorial days. That is, I thought I might try a thought experiment or two on what could be done in an exhibition, if you were to take away the deadlines and the budgets and the sponsors that need pleasing and the government targets that need hitting and so on. What would I like my exhibition to say and how would I manage to say it with objects?

For my first imaginary exhibition I would like to consider a question that came up last week in a conversation I had with my in-laws. They both worked, my father-in-law all his life, in a factory in the Black Country called Kendricks. This factory, like Saltaire Mill in Bradford (which they’d recently visited), had once provided its workers with housing. So far, so familiar. These kind of philanthropy of early industrialists is well known, and often used in arguments to show how kind and public spirited capitalists could be in the olden days. Perhaps my exhibition could start here, with a few models of such factory + housing set ups. I could perhaps add a few personal items from the first occupants of the houses, alongside letters and account books showing the discussions and negotiations that went into getting this housing built and perhaps revealing a deeper understanding of why.

I would next have a section on the industrial machinery, records of accidents, records of child employment of the same period just to counter-balance the altruistic capitalist story from the previous section. I may even broaden the story out a little here with some protest banners, and newspaper articles showing where this episode of employer-employee relations fit within a bigger, national story.

Next I would get on to the very essence of my question. You see I’m not so much interested in retelling the story of how these early industrialists provided their workers with accommodation. What I’m interested in is how they managed to stop providing it without apparently tarnishing their reputation. Kendricks housing is now council housing. My guess is that this is true elsewhere. Perhaps others were sold off to workers or on the free market or to landlords. It would be interesting to trace those routes. Councils, tenants and housing benefit now pay for the accommodation of workers, formerly housed by their employers, presumably at a saving to the company. How do I represent that in objects?

This is an area of history I’m not too familiar with; I’m better in the rather niche field of scientific instruments. I can only take fairly rough guesses, based on objects I’ve seen in social history museums, on the objects that might be available to tell this story. One approach might be to show that process of historical investigation in action. To show the layers gradually uncovered as you go from searching company records and/ or the histories of a sample of houses (as a solicitor might do) to find a date. On to newspaper archives for any public acknowledgement of the sale to trade union records for evidence of  opposition. All of this, though necessary for telling the story, might make for a rather dry, paper heavy display. So perhaps a better alternative might be to focus on a few case studies. To look at the history of a few, ideally representative houses as homes, whose occupants, decor, possessions, changed overtime, and the impact of changing ownership on those individual lives.

The time to produce such a display would obviously be much greater than than simply reproducing the historian’s research journey since it embodies all that research and more, but the result would I think be infinitely more engaging, and tell the story with more feeling.

My experience of museums is that at their best such displays, that involve so much invisible research behind the scenes are possible,  but are also a luxury. More often than not displays are put on with tight deadlines, with sponsors encouraging certain angle and being less supportive of others. Often there is a funding incentive to linking exhibits to the national curriculum. All of this is well and good. However, I think there is also something quite lovely about an exhibition that is pure and simply a conversation between a curator and their audience, driven only by the desire to share a passion for research and explore interesting questions. I hope, in our cash strapped, profit driven times, that museums do not lose this entirely.

Science v arts…again

I still haven’t quite got the hang of academic blogging.  Who is it for & why? I sometimes mean it to be a quick history-of -science-led response to something topical, but my mind just doesn’t seem to work that way. Either my gut reaction is the same as everyone else, in which case what does my take on it add? Or its so different I feel I must have missed a point somewhere & will need to do a lot more research for fear of exposing my ignorance.

My reaction to the Nicky Morgan on science versus arts article probably falls somewhere between these two extremes. My first reaction to her comments, mainly because I’d been reading a lot recently about 19th century debates on education, was that this was an extrapolation of those arguments to their most ridiculous and unintended extreme. At the same time, I’ve noticed a lot of other reactions to it that seem to suggest people are generally, albeit reluctantly in agreement with her. There is this general consensus that arts are nice but don’t do much while science is useful but functional. In both cases there doesn’t seem to be much of an attempt to understand where we get these clichés from. So that, using history, is what I’d like to do now.

John Herschel wrote in 1830 about the utility of science to society and how important it was that science should form some part of all children’s education. This was partly because applied science had the potential to make our lives increasingly more comfortable. It was also because, so he argued, a well rounded education, training the mind to be curious and enquiring, made for well rounded people. He added too his hope that soon all subjects – including history – would take from science this evidence based, investigative method.

Later in the century other scientists (as a few had taken to calling themselves) took up the championing of science. There were famous debates – Newman v Arnold; Huxley v pretty much everyone – in which the merits of a science and mathematics based education versus one grounded in the Classics were discussed. In this process practitioners of science got better and better at spelling out why their subject was brilliant and important and undervalued.

Skip forward a few decades to the 1950s and we come to C.P. Snow’s famous lecture The Two Cultures. The two cultures were science and humanities and Snow was complaining that science was still considered the the lesser of the two.  His evidence? Socially, among the ‘well educated’ you would find far more shame attached to not knowing any Shakespeare than to not knowing the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

At the same time that Snow was complaining about status however, there were other changes that suggest science was not as undervalued as he was claiming. This was the birth of ‘Big Science’, of huge investment in big scale scientific projects that would eventually lead to the space race, particle accelerators and the Human Genome Project. This arguably made a considerable amount of science the servant of politics, which is perhaps how scientists managed to still cling on to this image of themselves as a useful but undervalued group.

Part of the problem for scientists was and is of their own making. You can’t go around telling everyone what you do is incredibly, incredibly hard and much more difficult that an arts degree and then get upset when people preemptively tell you they don’t understand or that they failed their maths GCSE three times.

At the same time, these clichés persist because while science has been busy honing its arguments about how useful and important it is no such case has been made for the arts. Instead we are left with some vague ramblings about becoming better writers and communicators, which understandably irritates many in science, particularly those with a strong involvement in outreach. So what do arts and humanities add to society?

For me, I think arts and humanities add hope. By reflecting on societies of the past we can envisage a better tomorrow. Through the arts we can gain a better understanding of the human condition and just as astronomers look for life on other planets to prove we’re not alone, so too through arts and humanities we can discover that we are not alone in our thought and feeling and hopes and dreams. Science is about understanding and helping us to make sense of and in some cases make use of the natural world. Arts and humanities are about understanding human society, creativity and the human condition. Without those tools how can we ever hope to make a better world? Is that too much, an over-romantisisation? Or are we just becoming so functional as a society that we have lost our ambition?

Regarding Nicky Morgan’s more mundane message – not about the kind of society we’d like to create but about teenagers and the job market – I would like to see her stats. The job market for teenagers and recent graduates is bleak and unfair. Unpaid internships for interesting jobs, the 200 people who apply to ever entry level job etc. Possibly while science and maths degrees are still in the minority they give you a slight advantage. That is probably the best that can be said of them in this context, and even then justifying £30,000+ debt for the privilege is tricky. If there is a science you love do that, the same goes for arts and humanities. With that much debt, you may as well enjoy it, and who knows, like the Minecraft YouTubers my 7 year old son watches obsessively, you may with that passion to drive you, find a way to make it pay after all.

William Herschel, an introduction

image-of-William_HerschelLast half term my dad came to stay. At one point in one of our many conversations he mentioned having read my recent article on William Herschel but then added he hasn’t really understood it. Now, my dad is a clever man, and I’m not just saying that because he’s my dad. He speaks several languages, knows everything there is to know about French-Canadian literature, and he can play the bassoon, so I found it kind of worrying that he hadn’t found it a clear, informative and effortless read. Had I really become so specialist and obscure that I couldn’t tell when I was being so? Possibly. But then it occurred to me, OK, if that is the case, maybe that gives me a new and useful reason to start writing this blog again. Is that a thing in academic blogging? Concise, outsider guides to the author’s research, paper by paper? And if not, why not? In case it is, or perhaps as a pioneer in this reimagining of academic blogging, I offer this very brief introduction to my piece on William Herschel.

For the proper article, complete with footnotes, please see: ‘Philomaths, Herschel, and the myth of the self-taught man’, Notes & Records of the Royal Society (2014), 68, 207-225.

The central premise of this paper is that no one learns alone. No one is ever entirely ‘self-taught’. Just as today we look back at the big names from the history of science, and find that actually they were helped by servants, assistants, instrument makers and so on, the same is also true for how they learned their craft. William Herschel is often characterised as an immigrant musician with a gift for astronomy who taught himself, discovered a planet, and became a household name. While nothing about that is entirely untrue, it is interesting to consider how he taught himself, and in doing so, we find out what it was like not just for him, but for many interested dabblers in scientific fields in England at the end of the eighteenth century.

William Herschel’s journey from jobbing musician to world renowned astronomer can be seen as a series of steps through a series of networks. At first he simply gets to know what the class he serves as a musician are interested in. Next he finds friends among the ‘philomaths’ a loose network of students, school teachers, country gentlemen and the like who like to read up on all the latest discoveries, learn a bit of maths and possibly try to spot a comet or two. Once he has mastered all they and their books can teach him, he finds a way to get himself invited to join a local Literary and Philosophical Society, one of many cropping up in provincial towns across the country. Here William learned how to talk and write like a natural philosopher (eighteenth century term for scientist). He made friends too with people in even higher places so that when he did happen to discover the planet Uranus he knew how to write it up to get it taken seriously, who to send it to, and which of his friends was best placed to get it into the right hands.

My story ends with William being welcomed into the Royal Society (then dominated by the great & the good, the rich & the powerful), and celebrated by astronomers and mathematicians abroad. While highly respected, he saw in his the work of his French colleagues, a new goal to which he might aspire. He now wanted, & through his son set out to achieve, to master the branch of mathematics that developed out of Leibniz’s version of calculus.

The Science of Knitwear

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere is a scene in the 2006 film ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ in which Meryl Streep’s character (Miranda Priestly) ridicules her intern Andy (aka Anne Hathaway) for looking down on fashion. Fashion affects all our choices she argues, describing the process by which ideas trickles down from catwalk to high street making our supposedly freewill-driven consumer choices predetermined by the fashion industry. At least I think that’s what she meant. The case is made beautifully though quickly falls apart on closer inspection. We have no choice but to buy what’s available, the fashion industry may shape what’s currently in the shops, but clothes would still exist even if the industry did not. A stronger case, I think, is that science, and northern science in particular, has shaped what we wear.

When I arrived in Leeds about 4 years ago, I was quickly greeted by academics making bold claims for the power of science to determine my fashion choices. Unlike Miranda Priestly’s, the longer I’ve stayed, and the more I’ve looked, the more evidence I’ve come across to support this case. Of course politics, business and even the fashion industry have played a part, but science, as I’ve come to learn, is definitely up there.

Lets begin with the wool itself. Wool, as we all know comes from sheep. Except that actually, mostly it doesn’t. Take a look at the label in your knitwear. Certainly in my wardrobe (or drawer, I learned once from an episode of Columbo that no woman would ever put knitwear on a hanger) most of it is cotton, viscose or acrylic. Making those materials look and feel like wool, survive the washing machine, and hold their colour are all down to science. The Clothworker’s Guild knew this when they ploughed money into the Yorkshire College as it then was (now the University of Leeds) back in the late nineteenth century. The University knew this in the 1930s, when they employed William Astbury and set him the task of examining wool fibres to see how they could be replicated and manipulated artificially. That work led him and his research student Florence Bell to take the first X-ray picture of DNA. Hundreds of students knew it too, as they came to the University throughout the 20th century to take degrees in Colour Chemistry or study in the Department of Textiles.

Money was made in this industry and this fed into the look of the city. All those nineteenth century, big imposing civic buildings came out of the textile and related local industries. And science, not just the utilitarian directly applicable to industry type science that enabled the creation of new fabrics and new dyes, but all sciences became part of the identity of the city. We still have the remnants of that enthusiasm for all things scientific in the extensive natural history collections held at the City Museum housed in what was once the buildings of the city’s Philosophical and Literary Society.

The feel of Leeds has changed since then. As a relative newcomer, I’m tempted to say its lost its way a little, lost its identity. Once it was a city built on wool, now, with Harvey Nicks, the M&S heritage trail and more recently the opening of the new Trinity Centre, its hoping for a reinvention through shopping. Will it succeed? I’m not sure. Its still a super friendly, lovely place to live, but I wonder if in focusing on shopping rather than its heritage in fashion and fabric and science and industry, it might not have missed a trick. Why focus on the high street when the city could lay claim to have shaped the choices at the very beginning of that chain, those choices shaped Miranda Priestly’s catwalk?

Wanted: humanities fansites

If you haven’t seen Becky’s latest post, I recommend you take a look. In it she articulates very clearly some popular feelings on the subject of ‘science’ and ‘scientists’. They’re arguments that will seem familiar to many, though have rarely been so calmly and rationally explain. And yet.

And yet. My gut reaction to this is the same as it was over the twitter squabblings around Christmas. It is to pout, and stamp my foot, and grumble that being good and being right is no fun. Because that, it seems to me, is what’s missing in all of this. That, for many is the key attraction in all those community building enterprises like Facebook’s I fucking love science page, or of dressing up and/ or collecting all the trinkets of science iconography, the lab coats, the test tubes and so on. They make knowing things and learning things seem fun. Science becomes a symbol for that, which is great for science, but I don’t think there’s any strong reason why they should hold the monopoly.

Which made me think, maybe, rather than complaining about what the practitioners and fans of ‘science’ are doing and how they’re using language (which was never part of our training anyway, we observe and analyse historical characters, we don’t or we shouldn’t judge, why have different rules for the present?), we should instead be making our own subject similarly desirable. And so here is my proposal: let’s start our own Facebook page ‘I fucking love humanities’. We could fill it with picture of manuscripts and objects and cartoon representations of historical theories and conversations. We could (in the way science includes pictures of nature) include images of people now and in the past at work, at home, taking part in social and political activities, looking after children and so on. It could be fun.

As I start to think through what might go on an I fucking love humanities page, it occurs to me, I’m not really sure what counts as humanities. But then, humanities doesn’t have the same history as science. It doesn’t have all those centuries of arguing a special place for itself, of spelling out why it is needed. But maybe it could. Every time this debate comes up, the same historical episode comes to my mind. Now, I suspect that every historian of science is going to have their own episode, their own key text, key character or key moment to illustrate and help explain this phenomenon, but for me its the unpromisingly titled A Preliminary Discourse on the study of Natural Philosophy, by John Herschel in 1830.

Herschel’s Discourse was widely read at the time, and is cited by people like Darwin and Faraday as part of the reason they got into science. It was written at a time when there wasn’t any kind of homogenous definition of science (indeed, its even missing from the title, Herschel in the end opted for the safer Natural Philosophy). Instead there were separate disciplines such as astronomy, chemistry and mineralogy and what Herschel did in this book was to use his experience of dabbling in these various disciplines to try to extract some common link between them all. What he came up with was this:

‘Science is the knowledge of many, orderly and methodically digested and arranged, so as to become attainable by one. The knowledge of reasons and their conclusions constitutes abstract, that of causes and their effects, and of the laws of nature, natural science.’

He surrounded this definition with examples to show just how unexpectedly beneficial science was to society, how even the most apparently non-utilitarian investigation could lead to knowledge, invention and/or processes that could enhance our quality of life. He suggested that our relative comfort and ease of living were ‘the fruits of reason’. He pointed to science as the key mode of thinking to separate the civilised world from the ‘savages’ and looked forward to the day when the scientific process was applied not just to science but to legislation, politics and history.

Which brings us to now. In the intervening years science, scientists, amateurs, professionals and armchair enthusiasts have all embraced and developed this virtuous ‘what we do makes your lives better even if that wasn’t our initial intention’ understanding of science. That lazy journalists will sometimes say ‘scientists say’ is neither here nor there. I don’t think its any more annoying or inaccurate a generalisation than lumping together all tax payers or motorists or immigrants and pretending they all speak with one voice. What perhaps we should be upset about and set out to change is the idea that science alone represents knowing stuff and improving lives. Now who’d like to volunteer to set up that Facebook page?

Happy families and Nobel Prizes

This week I have mostly been working on all things Bragg and X-ray crystallography related. How you react to that news probably says a lot more about you and your educational background than it does the actual story I’m going to tell. I’m not talking about Billy or Melvin, or about any particular modern application of X-ray crystallography. No, I’m talking about William Henry and William Lawrence Bragg and their Nobel Prize winning work pioneering X-ray crystallography at Leeds 100 years ago.

What is X-ray crystallography? Well, if you did A level physics then you’ll know about Bragg’s law –

(Image is from wikipedia)

This formula was worked out by this father and son team and it shows us that you can use X-rays to work out the structure of a material that has a crystalline structure – things like salt, diamond, DNA, to name but a few. That’s roughly how it works anyway. And the Braggs tried it out too, building their own equippment since there was nothing available that was quite what they needed at the time. Please don’t be put off by the equation, it really is only trigonometry if you look. No more daunting than 10 syllable word or some complicated spelling.

Anyway, how did this all come about, and is their story interesting to people who aren’t historians of science? Well, I think so, and this is why. The Bragg story begins in Adelaide, Australia. William Henry, the father in this story (I think this is why I like it, its all science and domesticity), had moved to Australia from England to become Professor of Physics. There he met and married Gwendoline Todd, daughter of Charles Todd, an astronomer and former employee of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, and Alice Bell, after whom Alice Springs was named.  Gwendoline had received a sound mathematical and scientific up bringing, and brought this to her new role as mother after the couple had three children. Actually, that last bit was a bit of a guess, based on her family background.  Of course we don’t know anything about Gwendoline Todd, that research has yet to be done.  They definitely had three children though.  The university wasn’t terribly well equipped – lab work in universities was only beginning to become standard – and so William Henry ended up learning a fair amount of instrument making while he was there.

Bragg (father) William Henry Bragg

As the children grew up, Gwendoline, I’m guessing, would take care of their day to day education, while William Henry would try and involve them in his work whereever he could. My favourite Bragg story from this era tells of the day their eldest son Henry Lawrence, then aged 5 years old, fell off his tricyle and broke is arm. His father had just been reading about Rontegen’s discovery of X-rays and how they could go right through the body and produce an image of the bones inside. His son’s accident struck him as the perfect opportunity to try it out. No ethical issues about experimenting on family members for him, oh no. Luckily for all concern it worked, and the incident is now claimed as the first medical application of X-rays in Australia.

In 1908 William Henry was offered the job of Cavendish Professor of Physics at Leeds (a year after his friend Ernest Rutherford had arrived in Manchester) and decided the time had come to bring his family to England to stay. The University at the time was heavily involved in the local wool trade, with almost all departments funded by, producing work and skilled workers for, or in some other way involved in that industry.  The physics department managed to stay a little way removed from all of this, it wasn’t obvious how physics might help that industry, and so Bragg was left alone to follow his own interests.  He continued to work on X-rays and to correspond with his friends and colleagues around the world.  His eldest son meanwhile, William Lawrence went off to Cambridge to study first mathematics, then natural science.

father (son) William Lawrence Bragg

Then, on a family holiday in Cloughton, a village on the Yorkshire coast, just up from Scarbourgh, William Henry and William Lawrence read about some experiments by Max Laue at the University of Munich. Laue had discovered that X-rays could be scattered by travelling through crystals.  What the Braggs did was to take this observation a step further and find a practical way of using this to work out the structure of crystals, that is the way the atoms and molecules were arranged in a crystal.  William Lawrence started working on the mathematics as soon as he got back to Cambridge.  His father meanwhile talked to the head mechanic Jenkinson in the physics workshop back in Leeds about building an X-ray spectrometer to try it out.

This all took place in 1912 and 1913.  They tried out their mathematics and spectrometer on crystals of rock salt and gave a paper on their finds at the Royal Society on 21st June 1913.  This was followed by more papers on more crystals (including one on the structure of diamond).  Then in November 1915 William Henry and William Lawrence were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for physics, making William Lawrence the youngest winner in history, a record he still holds to this day.  The pair didn’t go to the ceremony though.  Just two months earlier, in September 1915 William Lawrence’s younger brother Bob was killed in the Gallipoli landings.  The family were still getting over the shock.

At a recent meeting about how to celebrate this anniversary we started to talk about “bringing the story up to date”.  How could we make this story relevant, what was their legacy, how does their work continue to this day in Leeds?  Well, it soon became clear that it was not so much a question of how to define impact as where to draw the line.  X-ray crystallography is used in so many different disciplines.  In Leeds, while the university was still very much attached to the textile trade, it found a use soon after Bragg in examining the structure of wool fibres. It is, according the university’s new Bragg website – – today ‘one of the most widely used analytical techniques in science and engineering and has been fundamental to the development of various scientific fields within industry, including microelectronics, pharmaceuticals, aerospace and power generation.’

But do we need all these justifications to find the story interesting? Should history only be about winners and legacies?  Surely we shouldn’t have to invent linear story of progress and impact in order to get people interested in scientific characters from history.  They didn’t have to with Richard III, so why should we with Bragg?  Well, from the point of view of the University, there is of course a very good reason.  It gives a way in for all the various science departments to get involved in our events and activities.  It means they can talk about their current work but link it in to this anniversary and the university’s heritage.  But I think the historical angle could still work as a stand alone story.  Especially if we knew a bit more about the family, and about Gwendoline’s family, and about the work involved in bringing up a potential Nobel Prize winner and in creating and equipping a world class research lab almost from scratch. That to me is what’s facinating about this story, but then, I’m not sure in this instance that I qualify as the general public.  Do you?  What do you think?

Herschel’s telescope

Working in museums you spend a lot of time thinking, ‘why might that be interesting to other people?’. So when it comes to the Herschels I am dimly aware that broadly speaking astronomers love William, politically aware educators love Caroline, John has a handful of fans on the fringes of various disciplines (astronomy, photography, history of various things scientific and intellectual), and no one but me has even heard of the rest. Which is why the BBC stargazing Live’s piece on the Herschel 20ft took me a bit by surprise.

Here is a telescope that William Herschel built (cue all sorts of interesting asides on what it means to be the named maker of a telescope in the 18th c and the teams of uncredited individuals involved in the process). A telescope he used in partnership with his sister Caroline (women in science stories aside) and was effectively the culmination of his project to build ever bigger telescopes (aside on why this wasn’t the 40ft). It was the telescope he trained his son John to use, who in turn then took it to South Africa, to use to complete his father’s work for the southern hemisphere and to show visitors the sky when they dropped round for ‘tea and stars’. It was the telescope John’s children grew up with and grew old with until in the 1950s it was finally sold to the National Maritime Museum who have since displayed it, stored it and, loaned it to museums around the world.

There was so much potential for historians of science in this piece, but what did it actually deliver? Well, it looked fun. All those people who got together to build the telescope looked like they had a really fun time. Herschel was mentioned a lot, I can’t deny I was delighted with that. But then ‘the history bit’ was just a 30 second interview with Allan Chapman, who was marvellous but cut short, tacked onto the end. It was as though they though they should have some history since they were rebuilding a historic telescope, but just couldn’t quite see the point.

How could it have been better? I’ve complained before about people criticising popularisers of science for their shaky grasp of history without attempting to say how the story might be changed but still remain entertaining, so I feel I should at least try to offer a solution. Assuming the piece had to remain the same length, they could still have talked as they built about what they were doing and in what way it was similar or different to the past. In particular, they showed very clearly that the telescope could neither have been built nor operated by one person; they could have mentioned there that in William Herschel’s time, those people would have been servants or workmen or women and so discounted from the record. They could have talked about the materials they were using and why they were chosen. They could have talked about the experience of transporting this contraption and using it in different climates and what it must have felt like growing up with such a thing in your back garden with all the visitors it inevitably attracted. In other words, they could have made the history an integrated part of the piece instead of a tack on half-heartedly at the end.

A long time ago, I assumed that history of science more naturally lent itself to the kind of edu-tainment I enjoy watching than science alone because it offered stories where science offered facts. At the time, my general impression of science programming – rightly or wrongly – was that it consisted mainly of ‘look at these lions we’ve cleverly filmed’, ‘here are some facts about galaxies’ or ‘see our massive telescopes’ awe and wonder type spectacles. Since then however, it seems to me, scientists have got a lot better at telling stories. Like good science fiction, they can leave us pondering the nature of existence, and what it means to be human although so can history of science. All of which raises the question, what can historians offer now? Well, we still can offer good stories. Jim Al-Khalili knows this – there are historians of science involved in many of his programmes – but do the others know? And what about TV historians, it always seems harder to identify how and where they might include more science, but I think it might still be worth thinking all the time about where our subject fits in. Whether that might eventually lead to a few programmes of our own, well, who knows?

Bedtime reading in 2012

Judge me. Inspired by Helen Finch @HelenCFinch and Sylvia McLain @girlinterruptin, but much less organised, I have decided to lay myself metaphorically bare and reveal the shame that was my bedtime reading in 2012.  Or at least what I’m pretty sure I read in 2012 based on what is still waiting to be put away and what I think I associate with my current house, which we moved into last January. Before I begin, I would just like to add that this was the year after I handed in my PhD and therefore completely vacuous literature is perfectly acceptable. I was resting my brain. With that caveat taken care of, judge away.

In no particular order, in 2012 I read:



Douglas Adams’, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency
I put off reading these for years having been obsessed for most of my childhood with the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I used to listen to Hitchhiker to get to sleep at night and I remember laughing hysterically on a sleepover with my friend Vicky at the line ‘he just rang up to wash his head at us’, so I approached these books with some intrepidation. But I loved them! They’re nothing like the TV series, they infinitely more complicated and convoluted than that. I will have to read them several more times to have the faintest idea what was going on. Though it pains me to say it, Douglas Adams was never great on female characters, but then you can’t go around judging books like that, or you’d never have anything to read. So all in all, I would happily, and in fact will probably have to, read them again, and would certainly recommend them to others.


Tim Harford’s The Undercover Economist

I read this because I felt I would like to understand economics better, and because I found myself at my parents’ house with nothing to read and this was lying about. I began, naive and open minded. He convinced me to change supermarkets on the grounds that apparently there are no expensive shops, only lazy shoppers. Then I got to the bit about airports. Airports don’t have to be the soul destroyingly awful places that they are because there isn’t the money to make them nicer he says. They have to horrible because otherwise rich people won’t pay extra to wait in first class lounges. He said this not in a ‘and so that is why wealth should be redistributed’ kind of a way, but in a ‘this is how it is, and we are powerless to change it, and why would we want to anyway, since this system is perfect’ kind of a way. It was at that point that I began to lose faith in his arguments and continued to do so, on much the same grounds, for the rest of the book.


Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic ties the knot
Chick lit tends to be my standard trash book. Everyone has their genre – boyf’s is SciFi, for my parents its murder mysteries – we all have a sort of comfort trash genre in which all critical faculties are temporarily suspended. My 8 year old daughter and I had watched the film, Confessions of a Shopaholic, and I’m ashamed to say, both very much enjoyed it. So when I saw this, for 50p at a school fair, I snapped it up. On reflection, I possibly should have looked for a different one in the series. I have no wedding fantasies (I only realised I was supposed to watching Friends in the late ’90s); I grew up reading Virago press. The big climax of the book is that she has two lavish and expensive but subtly different weddings. I could not bring myself to care.


Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
I dare not say very much about this because I gave up any academic study of English Literature at 16 and feel I’m almost certain to get it wrong. All I can say is that I enjoyed it, and a lot more than when I read it as a teenager.


50 Shades of Grey
I feel I ought to say these were badly written and misogynistic, but in truth I didn’t find either to be true. They’re not Salman Rushdie, Literary awards type good writing of course, but I found them to be an effortless read, and fast paced enough to prevent too much dwelling on the occasional awkward phrase. And of course Dickens and Rowling were similarly regarded as too popular to be well written when they came out. In terms of misogyny, again, didn’t find them to be so. They have the standard chick lit tropes of course, slightly older, impossibly good looking and even more improbably wealthy, bossy man; woman adored by all but unaware of her own attractiveness. But at least the man was often wrong in his bossiness and challenged on it in a way that men in standard chick lit never are. And this is essentially why I liked them. The books were lent to me by a friend, so I was already predisposed to at least trying to like them, but also I read them as chick lit, and in that context I think they faired pretty well. In particular, the female protagonist was not amusingly flaky and incompetent. She was perfectly self contained, clear in what she wanted and how she felt, and was able to stand up for herself and articulate her feelings in a way my 21 year old self would never have managed. Also, there is a lot of sex in all three books (did you know?), and alongside it what I chose to read as a subtext on the relationship between trust and intimacy, though it is just possible I maybe over-intellectualizing. Obviously the neat cod psychology ending grated a little, but then no one has ever pretended this was social realism, and chick lit does require a happy ending.


Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha
Like films, the more a book is praised and promoted, the more disappointed I feel sure I will be when I read it and find it doesn’t live up to the hype. For this reason, and more often than not because I simply never get round to it at the time, I like to avoid the much hyped until all I can remember is that there was hype, but none of the reasons why I was supposed to like it. Memoirs of a Geisha came out years ago, I only read it now because it was in a friend’s pile of books for the charity shop and she said I might like. And I did, very much. It gave me the illusion of learning all about early 20th century Japanese culture, while at the same time being very readable and with a good story. Probably shouldn’t have been so suspicious when it came out.


Isn’t blogging brilliant? You write something, people read it (a surprise in itself), and their opinions make you think, and reevaluate and refine your original argument. Brilliant. A little bit like a conversation or conference paper I suppose, but over a longer period of time allowing for more thinking time.

Thank you everybody who responded to my last post. You gave me a lot to think about. I also liked these, which I came by via Twitter since I wrote my last post:

Ken Perrott’s excellent blog post – where I especially liked the neat summation on the entire argument in one of the comments. Basically they argued that scientists and historians of science were failing to communicate properly because each assumed, or was too quick to read into the other’s comments, an overly positivist or relativist agenda. It rang true for me anyway.

Melvin Bragg programme on Two Cultures

link to Steve Shapin’s 1999 chapter, ‘how to be anti-scientific’ showing how depressingly long this debate, in this exact form, has been going on.

While now even I am bored to tears with the whole Cox/Ince debate, I do like to tidy up loose ends, if only in my own thinking. So, this is the last thing I’m ever going to write on the subject, but I thought I would just throw out a few questions the debate has raised for me that I would really like answers to, before offering, finally, my own cowardly solution.

James Elder raises an excellent point (see comments on my last post) when he talks about all the history of science already in science programming. I know these are still figure headed by scientists in the main, which may grate a little, but, as I think I’ve said already, they are good at it and have skills, contacts and experience in that area which, to my knowledge we do not currently have within our ranks in history of science. If we want our subject out there – which I think was part of what motivated Becky, Vanessa, Thony et al – wouldn’t it make more sense to build on this? Perhaps by trying to ensure more lost characters are woven into their narratives? Or encouraging Science Club to include a more imaginative and diverse range of options on their wall of fame?

I know I’m being really dim, and I sort of think this I probably identifying me as not a proper historian but just can’t understand what might be achieved by insisting scientists or science popularisers avoid the term ‘scientific method’ or at least avoid using it without qualification. I am not trying to accuse anyone of being overly relativistic or anti-science here, I really do want to be a proper historian, but I also really, quite genuinely do not get it. I appreciate that everyone, even every scientist will give a slightly different definition of what scientific method is. But for the purposes of a throw away line in a non-specialist, non-scientific magazine are they really that different? Surely as historians of science we recognise ‘science’ as meaning a particular group of disciplines sharing some common ground, even if that changes over time. Otherwise why call ourselves historians of science? Why not historians of ideas or just historians? Would it have been better for the article to have argued that politicians listen to experts in all field relating to the climate change including but not exclusively scientists? I’m inclined to think that it would but at the same time I can’t see it having quite the same rhetorical flourish. Its just gets messy and the point gets lost.

For my part, I think I will stick to a relatively uncontroversial approach to history of science and look to find and promote lost stories and characters. Incrementally, that may even change the way science is seen, as the scientific work of mothers educating their children or of instrument makers promoting their wares become part of the grand narrative of science. I’m not brave enough or smart enough to pick the big fights, but if someone could explain them to me, I would really appreciate it.

Science wars

My daughter is in the other room playing with her chemistry set with her grandparents. My son is on my knee watching Batman. I have bred geeks and I could not be more proud. Elsewhere, in the twitter sphere the spat between Ince/Cox/Milinovich and the sci comm/ history of science people seems finally to have petered out after it’s ferocious start on 20th Dec 2012. Linked to this, have been a couple of blogs sneering at the so-called geek movement, caricaturing it as a fan club for Richard Dawkins and related arrogance and suddenly, over the space of just a few days, I find myself feeling distinctly uneasy about being part of the history of science community.

The history of science community is very small and as a result I know and like many of the people on the history of science side of these online arguments and debates. I know them to be generally sensible, reasonable people, self aware and with a sense of humour. This has made me assume for some time that I must be missing something important. Now I’m not so sure.

We talk a lot in histsci about the public perception of science and about its ‘popularisation’ over time and what exactly that might mean. To paraphrase Douglas Adams we ask ‘what do we mean by popular?’ and ‘how can we reach an empirical definition of science?’ We look at the historical context for different attempts to ‘popularise’, at the motives of all those involved, at their cultural influences, and so on. And we draw on all this research to better empathize and understand the choices made by our historical actors. We look at the consequences of those decisions and gradually, piece by piece, we build up a picture of how we got to where we are today.

Our subject gives us the tools to empathize, to understand the processes through which new knowledge is created, disseminated and transformed. By understanding the historical context, we can better understand why an idea took a particular form, or why it was explained in a certain way. Yet for reasons that I cannot explain, none of these tools seem to have been used in the current debates.

History of science is not, or should not to my mind be about insisting everyone qualifies every statement with the phrase ‘I think you’ll find its a little bit more complicated than that’. It seems to me there is a place for broad brush generalizations in the history of science. You need the broad narrative to then understand the significance of the more nuanced detailed analyses. To those with no knowledge of the history of science, a rough timeline is useful for working out some kind of chronology into which to place different stories.

The online debates have shown none of the subtleties, none of the more admirable and attractive qualities of the subject, instead they made us look humourless, vain, and completely unaware of the purpose or context of the article or of what the geeks and popularizers are trying to do. These are people who are very successfully introducing science content into the entertainment industry in a way that doesn’t immediately make it feel worthy or improving. We should respect and try to learn something from their expertise in that area. If they didn’t quite get, weren’t convinced by, or could not find a way of ‘popularising’ some of the histsci arguments we think are important, then that is quite frankly our fault. We have not done our job if we can’t even convince those who are basically on the same side.

And this brings me neatly back to what has become a fairly constant theme in this blog: what exactly is the point of history of science?

In the interests of trying to persuade funding bodies to give me money for research and more loftily, in an attempt to give myself the illusion that what I do matters and will make the world a better place, I have been trying to work out an answer. Ludmilla Jordanova suggests its important for preventing, or correcting a misuse of science’s history for political ends, though I doubt this debate was quite what she had in mind. She also talks about heroism in stories of science and our job in trying to find an attractive alternative. Graeme Gooday presented another good reason in a recent interview. For scientists, prospective scientists, and even for those completely outside professional science who feel science has nothing to do with them, it can give a sense of perspective and possibility. While traditional heroic and progressive stories of science in the past tend to give roles only to a handful of predominantly dead, white men, (otherwise know as the pale, male and stale) current history of science research shows us a much richer picture, where, in its most idealised form, every contribution is valued. History of science also give us the tools to properly empathize with characters from the past. It allows us, without judgment, to understand why certain decisions were made, where particular ideas came from and how mistakes played their part. It gives us a way of understanding how we got to where we are, but, it should also help us stand back and understand better what’s going on today.

Original editorial
Responding blog posts included:
Becky Higgitt’s
Jon Butterworth
Peter Coles’
Martin Robbins’
Jack Stilgoe’s