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

History for scientists

The other week I was in a meeting with a number of scientists, all of whom have an interest in preserving their collections of old apparatus, and it got me thinking. All our scientists were retired, and they all shared roughly the same view of history of science.  One even spelled it out.  They all saw history of science as something irrelevant to their work & their teaching.  Instead they saw it as light entertainment and really only something you’d be likely to be interested in in later life.

So, as historians of science, is this something we’re OK with? And if not, what do we do about it? I can’t of course be sure this group was representative of all scientists, although Leeds is a pretty big university and these scientists came from a range of disciplines and in each case they were there because, of their department, they were the member of staff most interested in preserving their subject’s historical artefacts.  This suggests that it probably is true.  Though perhaps there are other universities where links between the history of science and the science departments are stronger.  It would be interesting to know.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter. We can’t all be interested in every subject after all. But it seems to me history of science will suffer as a discipline if it doesn’t attract roughly as many scientists as historians to its ranks. We need that range of perspective and expertise and I’m not sure its currently getting it.  Anedcotally at least it seems the balance is very much on the history side at the moment.  Part of the reason for this, it seems to me, is that science students do not get a huge amount of encouragement to take up history of science courses as part of their degree, because the scientists teaching them do not see the courses as enhancing their understanding of their discipline.  They might (if we’re lucky) see them as entertaining, and maybe even interesting, but I don’t think many believe them to be actually useful to students in helping them to master their subject.  That, it seems to me, is a problem.  Not least because isn’t part of the justification for history of science as a subject, that it enhances our understanding of science and how science works?

Since the meeting that began this whole train of thought was about the university museum, a natural beginning would be to start making history of science seem relevant to scientists through something object based. One idea would be to try to design an undergrad physics lesson using objects to show the basic principles behind electricity, black boxed in their modern counterparts. Something like that. As a project this could be quite time consuming, not least in convincing all parties of its merits, but I like to think that if we can get somekind of collaboration of this type going – demonstrating to scientists that we can be useful (not just entertaining) to them – then it could really enhance both disciplines and get easier as ideas flow back and forth. This is just a very simple, obvious starting point.  It would be great to come up with more ideas on how science and its history can work together more.  I’m sure attempts at this have already begun, it would be wonderful to hear how they’ve been working out.  As ever, any suggestions, recommendations and advice would be gratefully received.

Florence Bell and the hidden treasure

There has been quite a bit of discussion recently I’ve noticed on blogs and twitter about the right kind of popular history of science.  Whether or not we should have heroes, and what we mean by heroes, whether or not linear story telling is a good or bad thing, and so on.  All I would like to add to this discussion, is to say that I really don’t the public (yes I know there are many publics) cares, particularly, about these discussions.  I think there should be more history of science out there, and that there should be room for many different styles.  But also, I think that we can over intellectualise.  To convince people of the merits of non-heroic history of science storytelling, surely we just need some really well written examples?  I think, to paraphrase Becky in her H Word blog, the public do not necessarily require ‘heroes and linear, progressive narratives’, but the public does require page-turning writing.  That is the tricky bit.

So, while I don’t pretend this to be the brilliant writing required to win the argument, here at least is an attempt.  Decide for yourselves if it is for or against heroes, linear, progressive narratives and all.

Here’s a story I’ve been meaning to write up for a long time. The Astbury camera. To me, this story sums up all that is brilliant about working in a museum.

William Astbury joined Leeds University when the university still had strong links to the local textiles industry. Science had recently saved the UK silk industry, developing an artificial alternative to silk and part of Astbury’s job was to see what science might do for wool. To this end Astbury and his research assistant Florence Bell started to look at the structure of wool, essentially by firing X-rays at wool samples.

This work with X-ray and wool developed and out of it came a design for an X-ray camera – similar to an old fashioned glass plate or film camera but made of lead – as a means of recording results that could then be pored over. As part of her work looking at the protein fibres in wool Florence Bell took the first ever photograph of DNA.  This photograph, its importance unrecognised at the time, lay buried in her PhD thesis, in the University library for many years.  It is only in the last couple, that it has been resurrected and examined enthusiastically by historians.

Florence Bell’s story is perhap a story to come back to – a woman, making a name for herself in scientific research in the 1930s, now all but forgotten – but for now we will stick to the story of the camera. After Bell’s work, the camera continued to be used for many years. Slicker, mass produced versions followed and were used in labs across the world (including most famously Rosalind Franklin’s in London in the 1950s). Then research & teaching moved on & along with so many other scientific instruments the camera was replaced, its story all but forgotten. There was no university museum, so like so many other fantastically important but visually unremarkable instruments it could very easily have ended up in a skip.

Luckily for our story, the biochemist Dr John Lydon had recently joined the department and rescued it. He kept it in his office, on top of a filing cabinet, a daily reminder of his department’s great history. And there it stayed for 30 years, until one day Lydon got chatting with historian of science Dr (now professor) Greg Radick, who just happened to be very interested in Astbury & who also just happened to be setting up a museum.  That museum became the History of Science, Technology and Medicine Museum at Leeds (sometimes called the HPS Museum project) and Astbury’s camera has become our pride and joy, our very own hidden treasure.

And so there we have it.  It now sits proudly on display in the entrance to the Philosophy Department at Leeds University, pointed out to any student who will stop long enough to hear its story, a story not of a single inventor or scientist but of many individuals and institutions, of scientific enquiry but also of the whims, interests and sentimental attachments of a handful of individuals.

Excuses for underachievement

I should begin by saying that these are not my excuses for underachievement exactly, but rather excuses I’ve come across in my research in history of science, that have made me feel better about my own time hungry distractions.  Barely a day goes by in which I don’t read the phrase (or something similar) ‘our hectic modern lives’.  Perhaps I should read fewer glossies aimed at middle aged women.  Meetings are the same.  Few reach an end without at least one person declaring ‘well I have so much to do’, or ‘I’ll try to fit it in, but I have so much on at the moment’, etc., etc.  Twitter is full of similar claims.  All of which suggests I’m not alone in feeling the need to justify my inability to get things done.  Luckily, history of science can provide a marvellous sense of perspective, while pleasingly giving the illusion of being a productive activity at the same time.  Its a win-win.  It turns out, historically no one had anytime to achieve anything either.  Here are a few of their excuses:

1788, William Herschel excuses some basic mathematics mistakes in a letter to Lalande: ‘I have so little leisure for practice that it would be no wonder, on account of the multiplicity of things that take up my time, and continually disturb my thoughts, when I am calculating, if I had made many more blunders than I have made… ‘

1810s, Adam Sedgwick wrote to a friend: ‘Here I am grinding away with six pupils. Under such circumstances it is impossible to advance one step. But I am compelled by circumstances to undergo this drudgery. When I look back on what I have done since I was elected Fellow I cannot discover that I have made any proficiency whatever, or gained one new idea.’

1818, Charles Babbage told John Herschel: ‘I am at present very much engaged with mineralogy and have not much time to think of abstract truth’

1835, Margaret Brodie Herschel to her mother, Emilia Stewart: ‘After tea there is singing & arranging French sentences with a box of letters till bed time at 8 o’clock, & then comes the only hours I have to read or write, learn German or copy for Herschel.’

Something to think about next time you get to the end of a day, having yet again failed to get as much done as you’d hoped.  You are not alone.  Quite the opposite, you’re in very good company.

What is the point of history of science?

History of science is interesting, makes us think and helps make sense of the products and processes of science that we see all around us.  However, I have never been completely sure why it should matter to the world around us, what purpose it serves.

I think this concern comes from two things.  It comes from spending a considerable amount of time studying practitioners of science and their attempts to argue for the societal importance of their subject.  It also comes from watching historians of science complain about discussions they’re left out of or gripe about scientists’ muscling in on their/our territory by attempting to write their own history.  Put the two together and it seems to me that as historians of science we have something very important to learn from the subjects of our research – they had to spell out their usefulness to others and so do we.

In 1830 John Herschel argued at length in his Preliminary Discourse on the study of natural philosophy that science made our individual lives more comfortable, and saved society as a whole from costly mistakes by informing our decisions. It could inspire us, he argued, to attempt things we never thought possible and, he concluded, was ultimately what made us ‘civilized’. In 1959 C. P. Snow asserted that science and engineering won the allies the second world war, and yet was vastly undervalued compared to Greek and Latin. Brian Cox more recently went further:

These curiosity led voyages of discovery across all scientific disciplines have delivered increased life expectancy, intercontinental air travel, modern telecommunications, freedom from drudgery of subsistence farming and a sweeping, inspiring and humbling vision of our place within an infinite sea of stars. But these are all in a sense spin offs. We explore because we are curious, not because we wish to develop grand views of reality or better widgets.

What is our equivalent?

From a purely personal point of view, I have found history of science has (1) given extra meaning to all the science I learned at school and in my undergraduate degree.  In has in a sense helped me learn science. (2) It has given personalities and motives to the great names of science, and introduces a plethora of additional, previously unknown characters to the story.  In doing this, it has made the idea of being a scientist or knowing someone who is a real life scientist appear much more attainable.  Put another way, history of science creates/ introduces realistic and attainable role models. (3) The final argument I have in favour of history of science is I think the best.  History of science bridges C. P. Snow’s two cultures, it is both on the side of the sciences and the humanities.  This allows it to see both sides, translate between the two and help break down that divide.

These are my reasons, they’re all very personal to me, to my life experience and my research interests.  Others I suspect have very different reasons.  I’d love to hear them, I just haven’t yet found a tackful way to ask.  Asking a historian of science what is the point of history of science sounds like the kind of question that could easily offend.  I know it didn’t go down well when I suggested to a group of academics that I liked museum work and journalism because it had the potential to reach a wider audience than the 5 people expected to read the average scholarly work.

As I write this, I feel fairly sure that this discussion must have gone on many times before, and among people far more qualified than me to formulate clever opinion.  If that is the case, and you’re reading this, and you know, let me know.  And let others know too.  I can’t help feeling the only reason historians of science are sometimes left out of debate is that often, people in the media and elsewhere don’t know what to do with us.  They don’t know where we fit in, what we might contribute.  Its up to us to make our usefulness clear.