When I asked for suggestions for good, popular history of science I received a wide variety of responses, which I should have expected, given the nature of Twitter and the range of views that exist regarding what history of science actually is (see the assorted 140 character definitions of #histsci solicited by Michael Barton here). The list of suggestions I received included some that I would definitely not recommend myself, and I good few that I have never read. So, given that, which should I highlight here on Whewell’s Ghost?
I have an admission to make: I have actually had to think about what makes a good, popular history of science before. In fact, I previously judged several of the suggested books against each other for a prize. In 2005 I was a judge for the Dingle Prize, offered every two years by the British Society for the History of Science for “the best book in the history of science, technology and medicine accessible to a non-expert readership”. Because publishers were invited to submit works published in 2003 and 2004, including those reissued as paperbacks, several for the Revolutions in Science Series, published by Icon Books and edited by Jon Turney (@jonWturney), came under our scrutiny.
I did not, at the time, realise that it was a series but since it is, and because I feel that it was a laudable attempt to make paid-up historians of science write for a wider public, I will give the complete list (apologies if I’ve missed any – let me know):
- Jon Agar, Turing and the Universal Machine: the Making of the Modern Computer (2001)
- Andrew Gregory, Eureka! The Birth of Science (2001)
- Andrew Gregory, Harvey’s Heart: the Discovery of Blood Circulation (2001)
- John Henry, Moving Heaven and Earth: Copernicus and the Solar System (2001)
- Kim Sterelny, Dawkins vs Gould: Survival of the Fittest (2001)
- Patricia Fara, An Entertainment for Angels: Electricity in the Enlightenment (2002)
- John Henry, Knowledge is Power: Francis Bacon and the Method of Science (2002)
- Stephen Pumfrey, Latitude and the Magnetic Earth (2002)
- Jon Agar, Constant Touch: a Global History of the Mobile Phone (2003)
- Jeff Hughes, The Manhatten Project: Big Science and the Atom Bomb (2003)
- John Turney, Lovelock and Gaia: Signs of Life (2003)
- Patricia Fara, Sex, Botany and Empire: the Story of Carl Linnaeus and Joseph Banks (2004)
- Ben Marsden, Watt’s Perfect Engine: Steam and the Age of Invention (2004)
- Iwan Rhys Morus, Michael Faraday and the Electrical Century (2004)
- Andrew Nahum, Frank Whittle: Invention of the Jet (2004)
- John Waller, The Discovery of the Germ (2004)
- Patricia Fara, Fatal Attraction: Magnetic Mysteries of the Enlightenment (2005)
- Steve Fuller, Kuhn vs Popper: the Struggle for the Soul of Science (2006)
I very much want to like these books, and in many ways I do, but I have some problems with them. One is the fact that they are presented as a series at all, when the authors take different approaches to diverse episodes, and another is the series title. It is redolent of old-school, textbook history of science (where the history of science is presented as a series of striking revolutions, probably instigated by individual geniuses, in a steady march towards the knowledge we have today), and does not, therefore, describe either the kind of history that these writers would subscribe to or the books they produced.
Anyway. One of these books won the Dingle Prize in 2005. It was Pumfrey’s Latitude, which is certainly my favourite of the series. One of the main reasons for this was that it is by some way the longest: Pumfrey simply ignored – or failed to produce – what the publisher/editor had asked for. As a result, his book is much more satisfying than it might otherwise have been. A certain number of words are required to bring to life an age and a story with which most readers, including many historians of science, are not familiar. They are required to do justice to the achievement of William Gilbert, especially since his work is a long way removed from modern science and a modern understanding of, for example, magnetism. Some of the other, shorter, books in the series felt too slight to make the reader understand what was really interesting about the topics they treat.
As I mentioned in the comments to the previous post, length is no bar to popularity or to good, enjoyable writing. The book that only JUST missed out on the Dingle Prize that year was Jenny Uglow’s Lunar Men, and that was a long book and a genuine best-seller in the real, non-history-of-science world. Ditto Richard Holmes’s Age of Wonder. Likewise, as I mentioned, one of my favourite history of science books is a lengthy one: Ken Alder’s The Measure of All Things. This tackles a topic, the measurement of an arc of meridian in 18th-century France, that could seem daunting in 480 pages, but it easily draws the reader on with the power of good writing. In fact, it won the Dingle Prize in 2003.
As I discussed with Mike Finn (@theselflessmeme) on Twitter, it looks a little as if the 18th century lends itself particularly well to popular history of science writing. Perhaps, I suggested, it was a period that was close enough to have recognisable interests, motives and achievements, but far enough away for it to be accepted that science is fully part of the history of society, and shaped by historical circumstances. Or, as Mike thought, perhaps a focus on the “C18 gives licence to be both presentist and historicist (a la [George] Stocking), which is basis of popular history”? Mike suggested that “a little presentism is no bad thing”, for “If historians don’t do it, someone else (politicians?) will”, but I’m not yet sure I’m convinced. However, I must admit that I’m new to this literature on historicism and presentism: this article looks like a good place to start.
Certainly, while the history presented in these books is excellent, there is, I can see, a possibility that readers will come away with the sense that while, back in the 18th century, science was subject to all sorts of external pressures and interests, we have learned to do things better since then. This is a possible danger that I am familiar with in relation to the existing displays and interpretation presented to the public in the galleries of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich.
In Flamsteed House, the 18th-century story of the search for a solution to the navigational problem of finding longitude at sea is presented with some consideration of context, personalities, disputes, patronage and so on. This is in huge contrast to the way that recent and current astronomy is presented to the public at the other end of the site in the (Modern) Astronomy Galleries and planetarium, where astronomy is treated as a body of knowledge without much consideration of its creation and development. My response, though, would be to treat the recent stuff more like we treat the old stuff, rather than the other way round. In thinking about this, we’re back again to my current favourite mantra: science is a process rather than a product*. Keeping this in mind can save us from all sorts of sins in writing about science, past and present.
* The process/product formulation is from Ken Arnold (1996), ‘Presenting science as product or as process: museums and the making of science’, in Susan Pearce, Exploring Science in Museums (London: The Althlone Press), 57-78.