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 – www.leeds.ac.uk/Bragg100 – 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?