Giants’ Shoulders #30: A (Scientific) Christmas Carol

This December edition of Giants’ Shoulders is a 19th-century special, bringing together the Ghost of William Whewell with the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. If you will draw your chairs closer to the fire and refill your glasses from the bowl of smoking bishop, then I will begin.

John Leech illustration to Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol". Scrooge and Bob Cratchit with a bowl of smoking bishop.

I am indebted for most of the links that follow to the hard work of Thony C. at The Renaissance Mathematicus. Therefore let’s first turn to Thony’s own post on The 2nd scientific revolution. Despite rejecting the idea of the Scientific Revolution in the 17th century, Thony explains why the 19th century has also been viewed as a “century of revolution”: mathematicisation, disciplinary specialisation, spectroscopy, Darwin and professionalisation all merit a mention.

To get us in the festive mood, and to move from one Charles D to the other, Michael Barton, at The Dispersal of Darwin tells us about Christmas on HMS Beagle. It was a day for the sailors: “Wherever they may be, they claim Christmas day for themselves, & this they exclusively give up to drunkedness [sic]”. Christmas merry-making was clearly not entirely invented by the Victorians.

Michael also passed on the link for this post on Holly for the Holidays! posted at OU History of Science Collections. This includes a lovely botanical illustration of holly by the British botanist William Baxter, which is part of a current display, with seasonal highlights, at the University of Oklahoma Libraries.

John Ptak, at Ptak Science Books, introduces us to Luke Howard,

Luke Howard

who in 1803 came up with the system for naming cloud structures that we still largely use today. The post on Motion and Change in Natural Sculpture provides some beautiful images that were intended to illustrate or teach the classifications of these transitory formations, and also (aptly for our Christmas special) those of snowflakes. Also at Ptak Science Books, is a post on A New Class of Scientific Image? Francis Galton and Synesthesia, Revisited. Here the theme is the visualisation of something even more tricky than water vapour and precipitation: abstract thought.

Classification and taxonomy were hugely significant in 19th-century science. This is highlighted again by a post by John Wilkins on this blog, on Darwin’s motivation.

Charles Darwin

He writes: “For some time now I have been convinced that Darwin’s original and most pressing problem was not adaptation. It was the existence of taxonomic diversity”. Taxonomic systems reflected perceived ‘affinities’ in the natural world, which Darwin sought to explain through shared anscestry.

Wilhelm Haidinger’s Other Job, posted by Mark Grossman at Meteorite Manuscripts, looks at Haidinger,

Wilhelm Haidinger

who was head of the Imperial Geological Survey of Austria, although better known for his close involvement with the Vienna meteorite collection. The post includes images of two documents owned by Grossman that demonstrate the official and bureaucratic nature of his day job.

A number of 19th-century women active in the world of science were mentioned in Richard Holmes’s article in The Observer, The Royal Society’s lost women.

Isabella Bird

While these women are not exactly ‘lost’ as far as historians of science go, they are going be a great deal better known by a wider public as a result of the book on this topic that Holmes is about to publish. The topic also generated responses from Emma Davidson at the Royal Society’s History of Science Blog, with Heroines of Science, and Alice Bell, with Finding the lost women of science (several more blog posts on women in science are promised in the comments.

Next, we have Jai Virdi’s “In the guise of a friend:” The Eugenics Gaze of “Alexander the Aggressor” posted at From the Hands of Quacks. This looks at Alexander Graham Bell,

not as the inventor of the telephone, but as a supporter of ‘positive’ or ‘voluntary’ eugenics.

Just outside the 19th century, Dr Sky Skull lets us know What scientists in 1903 wanted for Christmas!,

taking images and inspiration from the small ads of a 1903 edition of Nature. The gadgets on offer touch on such cutting-edge technologies as X-ray and cinema.

From History of geology comes Kangaroos and geologists: The first geological exploration of Australia.

This looks at “one of the most ambitious scientific expeditions of all times”, when the “Geographe” and “Naturaliste” set off from Le Havre in 1800, full of men of science and artists to record their work. Despite the ambition and the achievements of the expedition, it is relatively unknown today.

Kele Cable has posted on Henry Adams and an Entropic History, which looks at some of the 19th century fascination for understanding history as a science, or applying scientific theories or methods to historical writing. Henry Adams

Henry Adams

went further than most by attempting to reduce history to the second law of thermodynamics.

In brief

Tantalising glimpse of the opening paragraphs to a forthcoming edited text on science and exploration from Michael Robinson at Time to Eat the Dogs.

Dan Cohen links the New York Times‘s coverage of the Victorian Books Project at the Digital Humanities blog (be sure to check out the link to Cohen’s transcribed paper on Searching for the Victorians).

The cholera outbreak in Haiti prompted Stewart Emmens to look at The return of ‘King Cholera’ in the slums of 19th-century London.

The Darwin and Gender blog brings us Darwin on Social Networking.

Recently published in Intellectual History Review: ‘Alien Science, Indigenous Thought and Foreign Religion: Reconsidering the Reception of Darwinism in Japan – Intellectual History Review’.

Recently published in Journal of Victorian Culture: ‘Darwin’s Flinch: Sensation Theatre and Scientific Looking in 1872’.

Till next time…

The next edition of The Giants’ Shoulders will appear on 16th January 2011. Keep an eye on this blog or the GS blog to find out where it will be hosted. Submissions can be made to the BlogCarnival site, by 15th January, as usual.

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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7 Responses to Giants’ Shoulders #30: A (Scientific) Christmas Carol

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