Tag Archives: books

Who speaks for the trees?

Kapoor landscape Anish Kapoor sculpture in Kensington Gardens earlier this year.

I want to use this post to argue for the idea of the communication of science as a sort of public advocacy for natural objects.

That probably sounds more complex than it should. In many ways, all I mean is that I think we can think of people who share scientific ideas as telling stories about nature. I think hearing stories about nature is important. Science looks at things we wouldn’t otherwise see, and in ways we wouldn’t normally try; it shows us something new about the world. As some sociologists of science might put it, science’s networks of ideas, machines, methods and prior knowledge ‘transcribe’ new views of nature for us. Science uncovers stuff. That’s why we invest in it. These new views can also be politically important, or personally useful. Glaciers make for a good example. Or the impact of particular drugs on bits of our bodies.

Take glaciers: I’ve never touched or smelt one. I’ve seen them, but only ever mediated through photographs or film. I trust that they exist, though maybe that’s terribly credulous of me. I also trust things like the BBC’s Frozen Planet or Nature News’ special on the Arctic (though maybe less unquestioningly). I also appreciate them because I think it’s important to know about these big, cold, possibly-slightly-melty objects so many miles away from me because I also believe that I inhabit a world within which they also exist and am willing to believe that my actions may have an impact on them and they, one day, may impact upon me too. I like that reports like this keep me informed with information, but also because they remind me to think about objects like glaciers because, honestly, I’m a busy girl-about-town liable to get distracted by a passing pigeon/ NHS policy/ knitting patten. So, when Suzanne Goldenberg writes something like ‘It’s an odd sensation to watch a glacier die‘ she speaks up for the existence of the glacier and reminds me to think about it. Writers about more abstract science bring even less tangible natural objects to attention, as well as telling us about them: holes in the ozone layer, neurons, genes, quasicrystals. In a way, they bring them into public existence.

(People who communicate social science do similar work too, showing us stuff I suppose is there right in front of us, but without experts to take time, methods and sometimes even equipment to study, we wouldn’t necessarily notice. Isotype‘s visualizations of society en mass, as opposed to via individual perception, provide some good examples of this).

This might sound like a rather old fashioned view of science writing. Maybe it is. But it’s not born from a desire to go back to a golden age. The slightly clunky phrase ‘public advocacy of natural objects’ is deliberate, as I don’t come to this innocently assuming that science just tells you stuff to listen to. I am aware of the layers of belief involved here, and the degrees of uncertainty. I also think coping with a bit of belief and uncertainty is necessary to understand, predict and cope with life in the complex world we inhabit. I think science provides a point of view on the world which for all it’s faults aims to be the best which humans have, and can be a view worth sharing. As such, we might see some aspects of science communication as a form of public argument. It’s rhetoric (and that’s ok). I’d expect an advocate to go in ready to debate, ready to answer and provoke questions, not simply present a view, and to say a bit about how they know, as well as what. Maybe ‘advocate’ is the wrong word though: too political, more the role for campaigners? (Or maybe science communication should accept a campaigning role?).

I should probably say something as to why I’d bother even suggesting this idea in the first place. For a while, I’ve been a bit frustrated by rather dichotomous way many people tend to think about science communication: deficit or dialogue (read this ‘where now’ bit in this post if you want to know what that jargon means). I don’t want to argue against the critique of the deficit model or necessarily against public dialogue, much of which I see as A Good Thing. Neither do I want to retreat to an idea that before we have public engagement we must have public understanding (quite the opposite, if anything). I just think it’s limiting as a way of thinking. It also feels a bit like a 20th Century fight, and that we shouldn’t always be trying to foster debate about science.

(and yes, I have read Latour’s ‘From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern‘. I appreciate much of the above is not new)

Anyway, happy to admit this is a half-baked idea dreamt up on a bus ride to the pub which is probably totally wrong-headed. I’d love to hear what other people think though, I’m interested to know if I’m wrong in an interesting way.

Book Review: Free Radicals

With his new book, Free RadicalsMichael Brooks has done something which surprised me: he’s produced a popular science version of Against Method.

Against Method, if you don’t know it, is a philosophy of science book by Paul Feyerabend, published in 1975. It argued against the idea that science progressed through the application of a strict universal method, and caused quite the fuss at the time (it continues to, in places). Brooks is keen to distance himself from the more extreme ends of Feyerabend’s version of this view, but agrees with a central sense that, when it comes to doing “good” science, “anything goes”.

Subtitled “the secret anarchy of science” Brooks’ book argues that throughout the 20th century, scientists have colluded in a coverup of their own inherent humanity, building a brand of science as logical, responsible, gentlemanly, objective and rational when in reality it’s a much more disorganised, emotional, creative and radical endeavor. This, Brooks argues, is not only inaccurate but dangerous; education and public policy would be much more successful if science was only more open about its inherent humanity.

This picture of the anarchy of science is done with affection and a clear strength of belief in science. I’m sure some would be tempted to dub it Against Method Lite, but Against Method, With Love might be more accurate. The message seems to be that scientists are people who do amazing things, even though (and sometimes because) they take drugs, lie, cheat, are reckless, work on stuff other than what they’re supposed to, are horrible to their wives, fudge their results, are motivated by money or are simply a bit of a dick. In places, Brooks also emphasises the religious beliefs of many great scientists, and the way in which religion could sit easily alongside, even inspired, their research.

Personally, I’m unconvinced anarchy is the right word here. Messy and human is perhaps better. Or, as a colleague put it at a conference earlier this month: “just people doing people things, in people ways” (I appreciate this doesn’t make for such a sellable book though). Still, the result is a warm, engaging and neatly plotted trundle through aspects of the history of science which the more cheerleading heroic histories tend to avoid. In some respects, the book’s approach of short historical tale after short historical tale is reminiscent of Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. There is a key difference though. Bryson’s book, when it came out in 2005, bugged me. Bryson is famous for his travel books, in particular a chatty style which talks about the people he encounters with a fair bit of pisstaking (affectionate, and often respectful pisstaking, but pisstaking nonetheless). But, witty as A Short History was, Bryson seemed to have left his ability to take the piss at the door of the Royal Society. It wasn’t a warts and all view of the world-weary observant traveller; more a cleaned up polished pictures you save for the tourist brochure. The scientific community welcome Bryson’s book with open arms. I was left thoroughly bored by its reverence. Brooks on the other hand, perhaps because he has a scientific background himself, doesn’t seem to be nearly so star-struck (and isn’t, I’d say, nearly so boring).

Again, let me stress Brooks’ approach is not “anti-science” in any way. But that’s not to say such an Against Method, With Love approach is without problems. I suspect many of my colleagues in the social studies of science would worry about this somewhat celebratory twist on the idea of anarchic science. They’d want more critique, more probing (because, I should also stress, they see such critique as a way to better science, they generally do this with love too). I also suspect Brooks’ focus on the big names of science – Nobellists and the like – would jar with those who eschew great men stories in favour of uncovering the less obvious, more detailed and often anonymous networked texture of science. Brooks might have produced an anti-hero popular history of science, but it’s still one with a focus on great men. Indeed, there is a way in which these stories of slightly crazy scientists simply constructs a whole new mythical image of the scientist, one that adds new and different forms of barriers between science and society. I’m not convinced science is necessarily a “bad boy” any more than I believe in the mythical branding Brooks aims to puncture.

(An anti-hero history of science isn’t a new one, nor are critiques of it. Rosalind Haynes touches on it in her history of the fictional representation of scientists; work that was neatly reapplied to non-fiction contexts by Elizabeth Leane. There’s a section of my PhD on the rhetoric of an anarchic image of science presented in some kids’ books too)

I’m really not the intended audience for this book though. I’d love to know what a more general reader from outside the scientific community makes of it. I’d also like to know what professional scientists think of the books’ image of their work, and how other scholars in the history, philosophy and sociology of science felt about this refashioning of their ideas. I did enjoy reading it though, I think the concluding points about the political worth of accepting the human side of science are, at the very last, worth more public debate.


Breasts, by Genichiro Yagyu.

Part of the Japanese My Body series, this children’s book about breasts comes from the people who brought the world Everybody Poops, The Gas we Pass, The Holes in Your Nose, All About Scabs and, my personal favourite, Contemplating Your Bellybutton. It focuses on the relationship breasts play between mother and child, and includes several pictures of breastfeeding. It’s presented through cartoons, but there is something deliberately realistic about it, they do not want to hide behind metaphor or euphemism (see previous posts on mechanical metaphors in kids’ body books and ‘poo’ books). There are explanatory diagrams (cross sections, etc) as well as scenes of people laughing at their-own and others’ bodies. As with all the books in the series, the message seems to be that it’s ok to giggle and be interested in our bodies: our bodies are pretty interesting afterall, and pretty funny.

Breasts, by Genichiro Yagyu.

I thought about this book when, in Chicago last week, I spotted an ambulance with “medics for melons” scrawled along one side, on it’s way to a breast cancer fundraising walk. There was also a car with two large pink cushions strapped to the back, which after some thought I realised were meant to be a giant pair of breasts. I could see the appeal; a jokey way of declaring breasts as something worth talking about, and a couple of big cushions to sit on at the end of the walk. I wanted to take a photo, but it felt like a bit of an intrusion. These cushion car breasts were oddly life-like. Moreover, people were standing next to it, and I was conscious that these events, for all their humour and desire to raise awareness, are often a time where people remember friends and family who have died. They are pilgrimages of grief. It felt rude to get my camera out, so here’s a drawing instead:

A car and its cushion-breasts.

Moving in the opposite direction to the people on this walk, I was struck by the diverse set of cultural imageries of breasts they were working within: in some cases applying, in some cases trying to transform. A bit later, in another part of town, I also walked by an event called ‘sausagefest’ which seemed to be, amongst other things (i.e. selling sausages) raising money for prostate cancer. (The semiotic play with body parts utalised by cancer campaigns is maybe a whole other issue itself though).

Like any bit of out bodies, breasts are not just bits of our bodies. They have a multitude of symbolic, personal, social, political and scientific meanings; meanings which often cross, even clash. I’m tempted to say this is true of breasts more than others parts of our bodies, but we could say similar of hands, legs, eyes or the penis. Or even of parts of us we see less often (e.g. hearts, guts, lungs, the brain), including those we need scientific understanding and/ or equipment to see (e.g. blood cells, chromosomes, neurones, enzymes).

There’s the subjective experience of having breasts yourself, there are medical ideas of them and artistic representations which may well be more objective, or at least accumulate further subjectivities. Breasts are also objects their owners share with others. I remember a friend talking about the way he had to “reclaim” his girlfriend’s breasts after they’d had their first child. He quickly received a clip round the ear from her, I should add. Again, this isn’t unusual in terms of bodily parts. We might offer a hand for shaking, holding, a high-five or a fist-bump. We  might offer to “lend” a hand too, metaphorically or otherwise. We share blood, or at least we may choose to donate it to shared social blood banks (as long as our blood is declared safe), we share lips to kiss, shoulders to cry on, an arm to lean on, etc, etc.

Breasts come in a range of shapes and sizes, and change over time. Their semiotics are similarly shiftable. Just as breasts may be used to symbolise something else entirely, they may themselves be understood or reconsidered via analogies with other forms or cultural objects. A friend, listening to coos over how much her baby daughter had grown, patted her chest with both hands and smugly beamed “goldtop” (translation: very creamy brand of milk). Anyone who has taken a life class will know what it is like to be asked to consider a model’s breasts geometrically. There’s a neat line in Alan Bennett’s A Question of Attribution where a character says he thinks Titian’s depictions of breasts look like they’ve been put on with an ice cream scoop. It’s used by Bennett as a way of showing a clash of cultural and sexual identity between two very different characters, and is an example of the ways breasts can be divisive too.

Here’s a final image of breasts in culture, from a 1970s cake decoration book by Jane Asher. I’m tempted to just laugh at it, the book certainly invites you to. Still, I can see how it’s offensive too. For me, the cake seems very 1970s, reflecting a changing attitudes to breasts. Perhaps the days of the booby cake will come again though. Other things I bumped into last weekend in Chicago included the site of the first a Playboy mansion (to background of protests at the reopening of a London club) and a El train full of young women returning from the city’s Slutwalk. Just because cultures of bits of our bodies change over time doesn’t mean the change is linear, or that everyone’s changed in the same way.

Alan Bennet: “It’s like they’d been put on with an ice cream scoop”.

David Kirby’s ‘Lab Coats in Hollywood’

dinosaur!Dinosaur model from the 19thC, still on display in a South London park.

Verisimilitude. Good word, isn’t it? It’s one of my favourites.

It means ‘the appearance of being true or real’. It’s not just a term for people who study semiotics: philosophers of science use it too (or at least Popper does), as a way comparing theories’ claims to closeness to truth. It’s more ‘truthlikeness’, than truthiness, but has a range of uses and applications, many of which get somewhat intermingled when it comes to actually putting science to work in society at large.

Top tip: After much swearing at my laptop while writing up my PhD thesis, I discovered typing verysimilartude into Word gets you the correct spelling prompt.

This is a slightly abstract way of introducing a great new book I’ve just finished reading: David Kirby’s Lab Coats in Hollywood. The book is the product of several years of Kirby’s sociological research uncovering the backstage role some scientists play in the film industry, as consultants on the depiction of scientists and scientific ideas on screen. Kirby also seems to love the word verisimilitude, and the occasional messiness of its uses. It’s even on the dust-jacket. But this isn’t an esoteric tome of jargon-filled social science. It’s a neat little book for a generally interested reader; direct, clear, thoughtful and communicated with a genuine interest in the people it studies.

Although the bulk of his examples are films of the last decade or so, in some respects, there is a long history to this sort of work. Kirby refers to my favourite example here: the Crystal Palace dinosaurs (pictured). In particular, the way Richard Owen, back in the 1850s, jumped at the chance to be the scientific advisor, so these models would match his ideas of what they looked like, not those of his rival, Gideon Mandell (Kirby, 2011: 15-16). As Kirby stresses, the construction of a movie is a very complex business, one which involves a huge number of specialists and has some rather unequal power structures. Arguably, Owen had more clout over the Crystal Palace dinosaur models than the scientists involved in the Jurassic Park films did. A scientific consultant may well be listened to at times, and in places within the making of a film, and then later ignored. Indeed, in some respects it’s an odd fluke that any films have scientific consultants at all, and there is no standardised method for integrating them into the film-making process (Kirby, 2011: 42-3).

It’d be wrong to think of film-makers as dismissive of a scientist’s point of view though. They wouldn’t invite them on set in the first place if so. Indeed, one of the key points Kirby makes is how important a scientist’s version of verisimilitude is to the film industry. The book has loads of examples of this (seriously, the number of films that have used advisors might surprise you) but my favorite example is Finding Nemo‘s missing kelp. As Kirby tells it, marine biologist Mike Graham was asked by the animators if there was one thing in the film that might disturb him, what would it be. Graham replied that he’d hate to see kelp in a coral reef (it only grows in cold waters). There was an uncomfortable shuffling in the audience. But go check your DVD: there is no kelp in Finding Nemo. Each frond was carefully removed, at a considerable cost (Kirby, 2011: 102-3). Even films which sell themselves on fantasy (e.g. talking fish) rely on a certain sense of reality too: they need to be credible even in their love of the incredible, and science can help them do this. There’s a lot film-makers can find inspiring in scientific research too; a lot of visual beauty and novel ideas, a lot to make people go ‘wow’. That’s all good material for movie-making. Kirby has a lovely example of a visual used in the 2009 Star Trek movie, inspired by input from astronomer Carolyn Porto (Kirby, 2011: 12).

Kirby also stresses how it important the verisimilitude of films is to scientists, something you can see very well from the fact that remuneration is not simply financial, and often relates to their work. Some do get paid for their work. Some feel this as inappropriate and so take alternative payment like tickets to premiers, some ask for funding for research programmes. Some see it as part of their responsibility to the public understanding of science, some want to promote their ideas, or see them realised with movie-technology, some find it simply fun (Kirby, 2011: 56-63). The National Academy of Sciences has a project to connect scientists and engineers with  professionals in the entertainment industry ‘to create a synergy between accurate science and engaging storylines in both film and TV’. Personally I’m not entirely sure if this is a constructive approach to the perceived ‘problem’ of science in fiction or a giant red herring compared to less showy education and public engagement work (? genuine question mark here, I don’t know. Kirby refers to audience research, but conclusions and comparisons are very hard to draw here), though it may well make professional scientists feel a bit happier; to let off a bit of steam.

Kirby has some constructive advice for anyone who does want to try promoting science through Hollywood: worry less about how you might make the science in entertainment products more accurate, and more about showing filmmakers that accurate science could actually make their film better (Kirby, 2011: 10). Other advice for scientists include get involved early on, and respect the filmmakers’ expertise too. Kirby further invites the reader to think about what scientific accuracy might mean within the necessary shortcuts and sometimes fantastical contexts of the film business. Yeah, there’s Finding Nemo‘s coral, but there’s also Brian Cox’s role in Sunshine, a scientific consultant who was brought in to talk to actors about a scientist’s psychological motivations as much as scientific ideas (Kirby, 2011: 71, 73). Those wanting to have an impact on the public discourse about science through movies would do well to think beyond a narrow sense of  ‘scientific literacy’. As Kirby stresses in his conclusion, based on what we know from the fossil record, the representation of Dilophosaurus in Jurassic Park is completely inaccurate, but the film had much greater public impact (for good or bad) in terms of its depiction of scientists as heroes, as paleontology as exciting, and as genetic engineering as potentially dangerous (Kirby, 2011: 230).

I’ve been recommending Kirby’s research to students for years (links on his site), and I’m glad I can now recommend a whole book to a much wider audience too. If you are interested in the politics of science fiction, some of the oddities of the film industry, scientific accuracy in popular science or simply an interesting mix of cultures, it’s worth a read.

Why Don’t You? A review of ‘Making is Connecting’

making is connecting

I’ve mentioned David Gauntlett’s new book, Making is Connecting, a few times recently: on my work blog, my knitting one, and on the Guardian’s Notes and Theories. It’s an interesting book worth talking about. It’s about the social meanings of creativity and 21st century maker cultures, be these makers of blogs, woolly cardigans, cupcakes, podcasts or physics-themed lolcats, and in particular the changing structures of making which surround what is sometimes called ‘social media’. As any seasoned media studies scholar will grump at you, all media is social, but with this thing we call web 2.0 the patterns of sociability are changing (Gauntlett has made a lovely vid on this) in ways which are wrapped up in the history of crafting.

It has, however, taken me a while to actually finish reading the book and post this review. This isn’t because it’s a hard read, or boring. Quite the opposite. For a piece of social sciences, it’s incredibly well written. Still, in a way, it is a book that inspires slow reading, because one of the many reasons why it took me so long to finish (why it takes me so long to finish most books, unless I make myself sit and read them in a go, or even watch a movie or er… finish this sentence) is that I get distracted. I stop consuming whatever other people have made – in this case Gauntlett’s book – and go and produce something for myself. I knitted, I cooked, I wrote, I gave lectures and organised events. Some of this I did myself, some of it collaboratively. Along the way, I also found stuff other people had made to consume and take part in too. And that’s why Making is Connecting might be ‘slow reading’. Because, this process of going off and doing something yourself is a lot of what the book is about.

One of the key frames of the book is a shift from the passivity of the ‘sit back’ model of what might come to be seen as the odd mid to late 20th century era of the television and towards a culture dominated by ideas of making and doing. People who watched British television at a certain point in the late 20th century may remember a show called Why Don’t You Just Switch Off Your Television Set and Go Out and Do Something Less Boring Instead. So does Gauntlett.

I wondered at times whether this shift is over-stated in the book. Or at least that I we should be careful of putting them up against each other in terms of making. I love the passivity of some TV shows because they free me to knit in front of them (just knitting on its own doesn’t catch my attention enough). Or what about TV shows that draw on crafting cultures? (food TV, especially in the USA is fascinating here). Moreover, there are ways in which that big smooth professionally oiled machine of big media acts as a material for 21st century craft. One of the striking, not always appreciated, aspects of 21st century making is how much of it is re-making. Fan fiction is the classic case study of the complexity of such remaking culture. Take, for example, Constance Penley’s book NASA/Trek where she writes about people re-working the stories of Star Trek just as they also rework the various stories surrounding NASA.

A smaller topic, but equally interesting I thought, was that of mess. Gauntlett mentions this first when he is introducing web the notion of web2.0 and mentions a video from Chris Anderson, and then comes back to later when discussing the Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget. It reminded me of my friend Felix’s great idea (a few years back now) of ‘messy Tuesdays’. Inspired by the ways in which some knitting and cooking bloggers seemed to be self-consciously styling their domestic lives to look like a glossy lifestyle magazine, Felix wrote up a manifesto (currently offline): ‘You are not your flawless surfaces. You are not your orderly laundry-pile. You are not the seamlessness of your Finished Objects. You are not your risen cakes. You are not your sewn-in ends’. As another blogger, Lara put it, ‘as someone who spent her teenager years wrapped in teenage angst about not being clever enough, pretty enough or thin enough, the idea that my home won’t be beautiful enough, my craft not so well executed or my knitting up to speed has been at times quite tough’. They confidently posted about the less tidied-up bits of their lives, celebrating the beauty and reality of the mess that surrounds us all.

I sometimes think we should bring that back: #messytues has something on a twitter meme about it, no? I also think there’s potential for some research here. John Law is good on this topic, as a post on the ‘serendipity engine’  reminded me recently. Although I’ve just quoted a couple of knit-bloggers, I think this idea of the reality, necessity and even beauty of mess has something to say about the way we tell science stories too (as the reference to Law may signal).

The point that most interested me about this book, however, was the way that Gauntlett, as a professor of media studies, is interested in people making media and mediating making. It’s all very popular culture orientated, with some nods to domestic life. The hand crafting of pharmaceuticals, for example, doesn’t get much of a look in. I wondered if this would have brought something else to the debate.

That’s one of the reasons why I referred to NASA/Trek. There are many other better works on fanfiction (e.g.) but I think Penley’s discussion of something as intrinsically ‘big science’ as the space race says something about the social arrangement of makers in late modern society. There is a danger that by focusing on the ways people make and remake some objects we further ‘black-box’ others. For example, I learnt how to knit from reading knit blogs. I can make a jumper. I can also blog about this on the super clever iPhone I carry around with me. I don’t know how to make an iPhone though, or even spin my own wool to make that jumper from. The latter is largely a matter of choice (I do at least know some blogs that’d teach me to spin and even what plants to grow to make my own dyes from, as well as a few people who have access to sheep for wool, or possibly even a llama). For the former though, I have no clue where to even start teaching myself, even if I did, the manufacture of an iphone is not exactly opensource. Most of the time, I’m ok with that cluelessness, it frees me up to be knowledgeable about other things, but it does also disempower me.

There are key ways in which most of us do not have the means to (media) production – from our inability to understand how to do anything but use (as in use as a consumer) the shiny computers so many of us carry around in our pockets, to more economic or legal issues like the one Martin Robbins recently flagged up on his post about web hosts as the Achilles heel of online journalism.

None of that is necessarily a criticism of the book. We all have to focus somewhere, and Gauntlett does touch on these issues a bit in his final chapter ‘Web 2.0 – not all rosy?’ Still, I was surprised not to see more on the sociologies of work, expertise and technology and finished the book wanting to hear more about anti-social aspects of DIY culture. I also suspect Gauntlett would get an intellectual kick out of the various aesthetics of steampunk maker culture (old post I wrote on an exhibition of such work).

To conclude, I do want to stress that Making is Connecting is a lovely book, not least because of Gauntlett realistically optimistic approach. Though he’ll happily call ‘rubbish!’ (his 10 things wrong with the media ‘effects’ model is justifiably a classic), he doesn’t wear an ability to be ‘critical’ like it’s some sort of pin badge to show membership of the ‘very clever thinkers club’. Academics should be able to say they like things, and I like this book. I’ll end on a positive note, an honest one, and say if you are a maker of any sort, I can wholehearted recommend Making is Connecting. It’ll give you a chance to think about the history and philosophies of crafting cultures. It’ll lift you out of your own maker microculture to help you ponder your wider context. It inspired me to make this post, and others, and to think more about my making. So do read it, even if it does take you a few months to get around to finishing it because you keep putting it down to do something else instead.

A bit of Victoriana

Everyone loves a bit of Victoriana at Christmas, so I thought I’d dig out some of my notes on children’s science books in the 19th century.

(preface of John Henry Pepper’s Playbook, 1860, via googlebooks clip)

The 19th century was the age of professionalisation of science. The word “scientist” wasn’t coined until 1833 [EDIT: or even really used until the 1870s], and the period was one for exploring ways to earn a living from scientific work, developing specialist scientific training institutions (including my own) and establishing a flurry of scientific societies. A boom in popularisation of science was part of this process, as the very notion of something to be popularised is both caused by and helps emphasise a sense of a distinct professional culture of science. As Aileen Fyfe and Bernard Lightman have argued, as well as scientists hoping to push out popular texts, there was a ‘pull’ from a keen market of science fans too. This market included young people, or at least the adults who bought books for them.

Not that writing about science for young people was new. One might argue the very first children’s book was on science, but there does seem to have been a bit of a boom in the period. It’s noticeable how many of the writers of such books were women. Indeed, Richard Holmes, in his Observer article last month on the ‘lost women of science’, argued that one of the ways women have quietly contributed to science has been through science communication.

My first example is a publication that (just) predates the 19th century: Evenings at Home: or, the Juvenile Budget Opened by brother and sister team John Aikin and Leatitia Barbauld. Aimed at 7-10s, this appeared between 1792 and 1796 in six, small volumes, each costing one shilling and sixpence and was reprinted throughout the 19th century. Indeed, it remained in print until 1915, its longevity perhaps down to its continual use as a school prize, as well as the fact that the first edition came out of copyright in 1820, just as publishers were looking for content to cheaply republish.

As with many other similar titles, the book aimed to be both ‘instructive and amusing’ (take that ‘edu-tainment’ snobs, it isn’t some kind of recent abhorrence). It’s writers firmly believed that variety was the way to keep a child’s attention, so it mixed genres as well as subject matter – poetry, narrative, dialogue, all used to discuss history, chemistry and botany. It was unusual, however, in that the book didn’t draw out religious aspects to the science as Aikin and Barbauld, brought up in nonconformist Warrington Academy, did not like to impose their religious ideas upon others. This may also be an explanation of its longevity.

Aikin and Barbauld really were quite unusual in this. Indeed, the Religious Tract Society and the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge were big publishers of children’s science titles during the 19th century.  Here nature was presented as God’s creation, something scientific understanding allowed the reader to marvel at. Reading about science was a form of devotional activity. It’s worth remembering the sorts of divisions we now see between science and religion were not quite so set in place at the time (indeed, the 19th century was a key period for the laying down of such divisions).

That isn’t to say all forms of wonder in children’s popular science were explicitly religious. For example, Peter Parley’s Wonders of the Earth, Sea and Sky (1837) aimed to present the ‘thrilling’ nature of geology, geography and meteorology (though I should note there are still references to God in the book). As historian of science James Secord puts it:

Wonders appeals to the expansive, progressive ethos of the early industrial age. It encouraged young readers to think that adventure, travel and exploration were not just to be read about by the fireside, but possibilities to be actively pursued. With its accounts of shooting stars, mysterious caves, erupting volcanoes and scenes of extinct life, the book opened up strange new worlds to its readers. This was how many Victorians first obtained their sense of the vast global territory that was coming under the eye of western science

(James Secord, in Aileen Fyfe,  2003, Science For Children, volume 3: ix-x)

Peter Parley was a character of sorts. Originally the mom-de-plume of a New England writer, Samuel Griswold Goodrich, Wonders was penned by a London-based writer, Samuel Clark, taking up the Parley brand. The narration is rather personable, talking directly to his ‘young friends’ and discusses things as if he is relaying past travels: visiting Mary Anning’s fossil shop, walking behind the falls at Niagara. Their somewhat avuncular tone is slightly different from many of its competitors, which were more likely to apply a dialogues with mothers or staged presentations between children (e.g. Tom Telescope, 1761).

Another book which applied the role of an explicitly male narrator, although this time a real person, was John Henry Pepper’s The Boys Playbook of Science. First published in 1860, in a relatively expensive gold-decorated cloth binding, it was another favourite of school prizes. It was also the most widely red introduction to physics and chemistry for young people in mid/late Victorian era.  Pepper was a star of the London stage (the inventor of ‘Peppers Ghost’) and the book’s biggest attraction was its instructions for activities sometimes known as ‘experiments’ but better described as demonstrations.

(page 25 of John Henry Pepper’s Playbook, 1860, via googlebooks clip)

According to James Secord, the Playbook started to fall out of fashion by the First World War. Perhaps it was a victim of changes in science (e.g. the impact of relativity and quantum physics), or more in the style of communication to young people (a revolt against Victorian didacticism). The real difference between the Playbook and its successors Secord argues, is that children’s science books of the post-Sputnik era were about recruiting for scientific careers, where as Pepper was much more about moral improvement. For Pepper, scientific play was a sort of intellectual equivalent of the health and moral benefits of sport, and thus an embodiment and contributor to the increasingly gendered nature of physics in the 19th century onwards.

Young men were not asked to memorize hundreds of experiments, nor necessarily to follow careers as scientists and engineers; instead, what mattered most was mental preparation for the challenges of the modern world of global capitalism, in which life was a ‘race’ both with one’s immediate fellows and with those of other countries. Readers were expected to use the Playbook to build character and prepare for ‘The Battle of Life’, to serve nation and empire

(James Secord, in Aileen Fyfe,  2003, Science For Children, volume 6, ix)

I’ve saved the best for last: Arabella Buckley’s Fairyland of Science. Published by the map and travel publishers, Stanfords, in 1879, it was immensely popular and reprinted across north America, as well as being translated into Danish and Polish. The book aimed to cash in on the Victorian mania for fairies, and embossed gilt fairies adorned its cover. Like the Playbook, it had it’s roots in a lecture series; talks given to middle-class children in in St John’s Wood, although it feels more like storytelling than Pepper’s flashy theatrical displays.

Buckley’s mix of science and fairytale might not sit well with everyone, but as with many science writers who have followed her application of fiction or allusions to magic, the point is to imply that science is as wonderful but with the added value of being ‘really real’. Buckley’s fairies were physical forces of magnetism or gravity. I think the best way to share it is simply to quote from the first page:

I have promised to introduce you today to the fairy-land of science – a somewhat bold promise, seeing that most of you probably look upon science as a bundle of dry facts, while fairy-land is all that is beautiful, and full of poetry and imagination. But I thoroughly believe myself, and hope to prove to you, that science is full of beautiful pictures, of real poetry, and of wonder-working fairies; and what is more, I promise you that they shall be true fairies, whom you will love just as much when you are old and greyheaded as when you are young; for you will be able to call them up whenever you wander by land or through air; and though they themselves will always remain invisible, yet you will see their wonderful poet at work everywhere around you.

(Arabella Buckley, 1879)

It then goes on to compare Sleeping Beauty with the initial speed of rushing water transforming into an apparently ‘spellbound’ frozen (or ‘sleeping’) state of ice. Buckley then underlines a point of beauty and poetry with reference to a tiny crystals of ice on bushes as water-drops are ‘napping’, and delicate patterns of breath caught on a window-pane.

In some respects, Fairyland of Science followed a similar publishing pattern to the Playbook, revised and reprinted up until roughly the first World War (20 times until 1919, mainly by Macmillan, as well as religious publishing houses), before slowly disappearing. Not that much-loved children’s books ever disappear as, passed on by parents or lovingly stored in personal archives, they can be very sticky cultural objects.

Looking over my shelves of 21st century kids science books, they reflect similar interests, patterns and styles as many of the 18th and 19th century books. Children’s popular science is a lot less formal now, and the genre lost explicit connections to religion a while ago, but the ghosts of Buckley, Parley, Pepper, Aikin and Barbauld still lurk amongst their pages.

Further reading:

  • Much of this post is based on the seven volume Science For Children edited by Aileen Fyfe (Bristol, Thoemmes Press: 2003). This is annoyingly rare – I couldn’t even get a copy at the British Library.
  • For a general overview, Fyfe has put a pdf of her introduction to the Science For Children collection on her publications page.
  • James Secord expanded his piece on John Henry Pepper for Science Magazine, and comes highly recommended.
  • I can also heartily recommend Fyfe and Lightman’s Science in the Marketplace, although you probably need access to an academic library to read it.
  • For those with access through the Times paywall, I wrote about children, science and Christmas for this month’s Eureka, which mentions some of these books in a larger context.
  • I’ve included googlebooks links above to all the titles I’ve mentioned, so you can read them for yourself. Personally I find these things fascinating, and hope you do too.

Children, adults and climate change media

retro moment! (Blue Peter Green Book)

The picture above is of the BBC Blue Peter Green Book. Published in 1990, following the introduction of a Blue Peter green badge in 1988. Sponsored by Sainsbury’s, it also has a forward by Lord Sainsbury, who went on to become science minister for the Labour Government. I have a copy of this book* which I have used when teaching children and the green movement, and dusted it off my bookshelf last week when I had an email from Leo Hickman at the Guardian asking me asking about the new Green Santa show from cITV (trailer here).

Go read Hickman’s piece about this on the Guardian Environment blog, which uses the Green Santa programme to talk about the ‘volatile cocktail’ of combining children and climate change in some breadth. I’m quoted in the piece and added some notes in the comments thread, but thought it was collecting these thoughts here too.

Hickman suggests Green Santa could be the first time children’s TV in the UK has explicitly constructed an entire series around the issue of anthropogenic global warming. Maybe. There is  Captain Planet, but that’s American. I have some memory of a whole series of Nina and the Neurons on climate change issues last year (?) There’s also Uncle Jack from the early 1990s, but I can’t remember the details of (any?) science in this. Blue Peter‘s move to green issues in the late 1980s is worth noting, even if it was only a part of their content. There really was a bit of a wave of this around the early ’90s (great book on the subject by David Gauntlett).

Indeed, I wonder if the slightly ironic tone of the Green Santa trailer reflects the way in which a climate message has become a well-trodden ground in children’s media. It’s one of the ways I find Green Santa‘s tone very different from the more earnest Captain Planet (which because of the fictional element, we might otherwise compare it to). Chris Ryan’s Code Red series and Saci Lloyd’s Carbon Diaries as. These both start with protagonists bored by green stuff which is largely seen as a boring old worry of their parents and then, through their involvement in a new crisis, they can re-discover the issue for their own generation.

I also wonder about the role of nostalgia here. I think EDF Energy’s “it’s not easy being green” advert (‘made entirely of recycled clips’) is really interesting, especially as the girl speaking in it must be at least 30 by now. Nostalgia has run through the green movement since its origins, but this is generally nostalgia for some sort of (imaginary?) pre-modern age before we starting polluting everything. Nostalgia for something that is quite explicitly modern (even ‘late modern’) such as advertising or earlier iterations of an organised green movement is slightly different. Re-prints of children’s green books from previous generations are also significant here (e.g. 2009 version of the Lorax, below) suggesting a multi-generational culture at work here.

A potentially key difference about the 21st century examples: I’ve read some media analysis from the 1990s cynically arguing that directing environmental campaigns at children is just a way of putting the issue off for another generation to deal with. Today, I think increasingly we see children targeted as a way to get adults to think about global warming. The Observer ran a magazine cover story last year on children pestering their parents on environmental issues. We might argue that the DECC’s Bedtime Stories campaign is indicative of this adults-via-kids approach too (albeit an allusion to kids, rather than aiming at kids directly). According to the DECC, this was based on research on how to appeal to adults (though we might ask questions about this).

I’d love someone (me, given time and resources) to do some deeper research into this. The ethics, sociology and psychology of kids and climate change, including thinking about the role of children and childhood in adults’ lives. All fascinating stuff.

* I don’t, however, have a Blue Peter badge, green or otherwise. Yes, this is something I’m slightly bitter about.

The lorax loves trees