Good, popular history of science II

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):

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.

About Rebekah Higgitt

Rebekah Higgitt completed a PhD in the history of science at Imperial College London in 2004 and did postdoctoral research at the University of Edinburgh. She was Curator of History of Science and Technology at the National Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory, Greenwich between 2008 and 2013 and is now a senior lecturer in the School of History at the University of Kent. Her research and publications have mainly focused on scientific institutions, scientific biography, history of science and the relationship between science, government and the public in 19th-century Britain. She became Principal Curator of Science at National Museums Scotland in August 2020 and is currently also Acting Keeper of Science & Technology.
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23 Responses to Good, popular history of science II

  1. Steve Fuller has interesting things to say about narrative and professional history of science. You might also find Mark Erikson (sociologist, Brighton) interesting on the topic. You might not agree with either of them, but such disagreement might be some food for thought.

  2. Markk says:

    What do you mean by “popular”? Books focusing on certain fields have been the best general science books I’ve read but none of them are popular just like none of the books on your list above are. They are read by a vanishingly small segment of the general population. Accepting that:

    Richard Fortey’s “Earth” was a great geology text. His “Life” and “Trilobite” also are neat. Better than John Macphee’s books for me.

    Trephen Mithin’s “After the Ice” is a great archeology and history narrative. Really compelling.

    Robert Oerter’s “The Theory of Almost Everything” is the best high level description of the Standard Model of Particle Physics”. I have to give this quote from the introduction:

    In physics news items the Standard Model usually plays the whipping boy. Reports of successful experimental tests of the theory have an air of disappointment and every hint of the theory’s inadequacy is greeted with glee. It is the Rodney Dangerfield of physical theories. “It don’t get no respect”. But it is perhaps, the pinnacle of human intellectual achievement to date.

    There are more specific works. I have found the most compelling general writing about science for me is actually about a specific field and somehow manages to open my eyes to the current state of the field in ways that were closed before.

    • Rebekah Higgitt says:

      By popular I only really mean something that is more readable than a text aimed squarely at academics – something that has more than a few hundred copies printed and is still in print after a few years! Although, as I said, the books by Uglow and Holmes reached as good an audience as any non-fiction book might expect (excepting celebrity ‘auto’biographies and cookery books etc) – that’s a triumphant success to me! By good, I mean books that a) are readable and, more importantly, b) give an unbiased, well-researched and historically informed account.

      By history of science I clearly don’t mean the kind of books that you have suggested above! These I would class as (popular) science writing, treating, as you say, “the current state of the field”.

  3. Thony C. says:

    Thanks for the Pumfrey recommendation I did not know of this book. Stephen Pumfrey’s academic work is very good and I have a special interest in Gilbert as we both went to the same school so I shall be reading this book.

  4. jonturney says:

    The history of Stephen’s (excellent) book was itself quite a saga, the details of which shall remain in the obscurity of the publishing process where they belong. Suffice to say that turning your life’s work into a popular book can be quite hard, it was a *lot* longer when in draft, and he was extremely gracious about some pretty drastic editing!

    Can I add to the list my own Lovelock and Gaia in the Icon series (just for completeness, you know…) and – for impressive use of history of science by a “popular science” author – Carl Zimmer’s Soul Made Flesh (2004)

    • Agree re Carl’s book – excellent stuff!

    • Rebekah Higgitt says:

      Jon – I’ve added your book. Sincerely apologies for missing this out. I couldn’t find a list of the whole series on the Icon website, so checked the linked Book Series via the British Library website. This seems to have missed out several books, as I now realise, and I have also belatedly added Ben Marsden’s and Iwan Morus’s books (particularly silly to have missed those as a) I know Ben and Iwan and b) I’ve read and own the books!).

      Thanks also for the Carl Zimmer addition – another one to add to my ever-growing to-read list.

  5. Darin says:

    This is an issue that I feel strongly about—historians of science and accessible & interesting histories of science—and have tried to raise in different contexts and at different times:
    recently, some time ago, and then before that, and still earlier, and then about a year ago.

    I’m not sure what good it’s done me or anybody else, but there you go.

    • Rebekah Higgitt says:

      Thanks for linking your posts – I will have a read and reflect on them. It’s not a new topic by any means, but one that has become urgent for me now that I am within a Museum rather than a University. On the topic of Giant’s Shoulders, I think there are good historical reasons for the fact that it has been dominated by scientists writing about history rather than historians, but I hope that this is beginning to change as more historians get onto blogs and Twitter and as they find the various outlets available to them.

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