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.