Category Archives: historyofscience

William Crookes

Sir William Crookes charity shop

A picture of some shop fronts on the Caledonian Road, a little to the north of Kings Cross station. At the forefront is a slightly grubby blue sign: the Sir William Crookes charity shop. A lot of London charity shops are big brands like Oxfam or the British Heart Foundation, but there are a few independents like this too. They tend to be based around local charities though, named after a campaign or hospital, not a person. So, when I passed this shop one night on my way home from a party, it stuck out. I also recognised the name. Crookes, Crookes, where I have I heard that before?


Reaches for Dictionary of Scientific Biography

Sir William Crookes (b. 17 June 1832, London – d. 4 April 1919, London), a physical chemist who did fundamental work in the development of atomic physics. The eldest kid of sixteen, his father was a successful tailor with a shop in Regents Street. The DSB says he had irregular schooling, although Hannah Gay (BJHS, 1996) also stresses that for all that his interest in chemistry was self-motivated and unsupervised, he was not without support. At 16, he joined AW Hofmann‘s Royal College of Chemistry, ending up as Hofmann’s personal assistent for a few years in the early 1850s. Hoffman’s focus was organic chemistry, but inspired by Faraday, amongst others, Crookes turned his attention to chemistry’s interaction with physics. In 1854 he was briefly superintendent at Radcliffe Observatory in Oxford, and in 1855 moved to teach chemistry at College of Science in Chester.

(At this point I like to imagine him as a teacher in a mid 19th century version of Hollyoaks, but maybe not). 

Crookes moved back to London in 1856 and set up a private laboratory in his home and started an entrepreneurial scientific career the DSB entry described as ‘catholic’. He was an ambitious man, both in business and science, a strong believer that pure science would lead of financial rewards. One might argue he had to be: he had ten kids to support.

His work with vacuums is credited with making possible the discovery of the x-ray and the electron, and was apparently a bit annoyed not to have discovered the x-ray himself. In early March 1861, he found a bright green line in a spectroscopy he was running. He initially thought it was an impurity, but by the end of the month he was confident it was a newly discovered element, and called it Thallium, after the Greek for green shoot. In 1873, he invented what’s known as the Crookes radiometer; an airtight glass bulb, containing a partial vacuum and a set of vanes, mounted on a spindle, which rotate when exposed to light (you’d recognise one if you saw it). He was knighted in 1897, and held presidencies of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Royal Society. He founded Chemical News and was involved in several other publications. He published somewhere between 250-300 papers during his career, on a wide range of subjects. As the DSB puts it “with aid of his literary adviser, Alice Bird, Crookes acquired a well-deserved reputation as a Victorian sage”.

(Oh, how much do I want to know more about the Bird lady? Also, do check out quite how much of a sage-like beard Crookes had). 

Ok, you’re probably wondering what the hell has this got to do with a charity shop on the Cally Rd? Did he do the Victorian philanthropist thing and found a hospice or library or something? Did he do load of work on radiation, so a cancer charity’s been named after him, like Marie Curie? Nope. Well, he did work on radioactivity in his later years, but that’s not it… The URL on the shop-front sign was down, but using the Wayback Machine I found content in English and Portuguese, connected to a spiritualist church.

Yep, spiritualist church. Spiritualists, in the words of Wikipedia, are not to be confused with spirituality. It is a specific religion which has some roots in Christianity but dates from 1848. Try BBC’s spiritualism at a glance if you want a primer. The very short version is that they believe you can communicate with the dead.

If you are WFT-ing that a chap who was a President of the Royal Society might have been into séances, you wouldn’t be the first. A contemporary of Crookes, WB Carpenter, the man DSB describes as Crookes ‘archenemy’ would talk of two Crookes, one a rational scientist the other a credulous spiritualist. That’s a very narrow view.

(If you are feeling as if you’d like to stop reading for a bit and listen to some soothing music at this point, try this neat little video, from the British Society for the History of Science outreach team)

Crookes was brought up with the Christian view of an afterlife. He also suffered the death of a beloved brother in 1867. More to the point, there was a range of kinetic, audible and luminous phenomena (and ideas) associated with a séance to capture his scientific attention. Let’s also remember that by the middle of the 19th century, the Victorians had seen huge social and scientific change, people like Crookes wanted to be open to extra-ordinary ideas, and in many ways a study of spiritualism offered a physically-based explanation of aspects of the world. It’s also worth stressing that he was deeply sceptical of much of it, and intolerant of obvious hoaxes, taking a meticulous empirical approach, even if (or perhaps because) he also believed that ‘real’ mediums who could talk to the dead existed. He submitted a paper to the Royal Society on the subject which was rejected on grounds it was not exciting enough (Crookes then published in his own Quarterly Journal of Science), and they did later publish negative observations of another medium.

It’s probably worth mentioning that he was President of the Royal Society after all of this (1913-15). Although the DSB entry does dryly conclude with line that this presidency “was marred not only by the outbreak of war but also by a degree of ill feeling from the young generation of fellows that he had sowed the wild oats of genius past his allotted time” and Gay also notes that many of his awards from the scientific community seem to have been given grudgingly, that wasn’t necessarily because of his involvement spiritualism. Studying ghosts wasn’t quite the credibility-krypotonite it might be for a scientist today.

Gay’s paper starts with the observation that it’s often asked why Crookes didn’t do more with his career, but that one could equally ask why did he accomplish so much? She argues that although he didn’t come from a ‘gentlemanly’ background, or an especially scientific one, his family were not without money or connections. Several members of his family had connections in bookselling, which helped him later in publishing work. He also built on early professional networks at the Royal College of Chemistry, which Gay refers to as a fraternal culture, based on communal if competitive laboratory work supplemented by many outdoor and evening activities. Later, although he had a private lab in some respects this was a “a family economy”. His wife helped, as did his mother in law and, when they were old enough, kids. There were also key roles played by a mentor (George Gabriel Stokes) and skilled laboratory assistent (Charles Henry Gimingham).

Gay’s paper concludes with the important point that there is often an ‘underground economy’ in the production of scientific knowledge which we should always be aware of. She means this in terms of the construction of the conventional science and engineering; behind every great man of history there is not only likely the cliched great woman but a load of other support systems and networks it can be easy to miss (or even deliberately obscured in myth-making). A similar point could easily be made to understand the ‘two sides’ of Crookes. There is always a lot more to a scientific career than just the things that get written up in textbooks, and a lot more to the generation and development of scientific ideas than necessarily ends up lasting as ‘scientific’ thought.

I still have no idea what Crookes’ would have made of his name being used for a shop-front charity in North London though (I mean, the dude was from West London…) or precisely what the money raised by that shop funds.

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.

Thatcher, Scientist

Margaret Thatcher was a chemist, don’t you know?

It’s one of those little facts that pops up in UK science policy discourse every now and again. Just this week, in a debate the Royal Institution on the structure of scientific careers, Evan Harris joked ‘how do we keep more women like Margaret Thatcher in science?’ (i.e. and out of politics…).

We don’t necessarily expect women to be scientists, or politicians. Neither do we expect politicians to be scientists. That Thatcher was all of these things occasionally pops up as a little titbit of trivia. It seems to fit a nice little sideline when discussing Tory science policy, or as a thread to the various stories surrounding the odd glamour of Thatcher’s public image. Newton invented the catflap. Einstein wore odd socks. And that ‘Margaret-Thatcher Milk-Snatcher’? Well, she was one of the boffins behind how to put extra air in Mr Whippy ice-cream! There was a wink to it in the a recent BBC drama about about her early political career. I wonder if it’ll make the movie?

For all it’s mentioned, the idea of Thatcher as a scientist is never really explored though. Until now, as historian of science and technology, Jon Agar has bothered to do a bit of digging on this, published this week in Notes and Records of the Royal Society.

The paper has two halves. Firstly, Agar talks about Thatcher’s pre-political career as a scientist. He then goes on to talk about her time in politics, in particular the ways in which her first-hand knowledge of the mundane, material, practical life of the working researcher framed decisions she made in the early 1970s, whilst Secretary of State for Education (minister holding science brief at the time).

Thatcher was a scientist for about a decade, at least if you include training as time spent as a scientist (which I guess you can). She studied science at school and then, in 1942, moved on to a chemistry degree in Oxford, working with Dorothy Hodgkin, and Janet Vaughan. Apparently she was a ‘good’ chemistry student, competent but more enthused by politics, and happy to admit that she probably should have studied law. After graduation, she worked for four years as an industrial chemist (at British Xylonite Plastics and  Lyons). He stresses that she was, as an industrial food chemist, in many ways a more ‘typical’ twentieth-century scientific figure than iconic characters like Albert Einstein. This overlapped with the start of her political career, and a photo of a lab-coated Miss Margaret Roberts (before her marriage), surrounded by bottles in a lab and pouring something into a conical flask, was used in a publicity campaign for the 1951 election.

That story about the airy icecream? Not true. Or at least Agar can’t find any evidence for it. It sounds like she mainly did theoretical work on soap making, and possibly some cake-filling quality testing (Agar, 2011: 4-5).

(Boring historians with their evidence, spoiling everyone’s fun. I’m pretty sure Newton didn’t invent the catflap either by the way, and the thing about Florence Nightingale and piecharts seems pretty dodgy. I have no idea about Einstein’s socks. Personally, I like to think he knitted his own, and don’t want to burst the illusion by actually checking).

However, Agar’s pulled out a narrative that’s a bit more intellectually nourishing than trivia about ice cream. And no, I don’t mean the cake-filling testing, though obviously I’m super-curious about that. He takes a story from reasonably early-on in Thatcher’s political career: science policy reforms proposed in 1971 by Lord Rothschild (himself, a biologist by training, and later research director at Royal Dutch-Shell) which stressed market forces, articulating the government as ‘customers’ and research communities as ‘contractors’. Thatcher, the minister with the science brief, was initially against these reforms, but changed her mind, a shift which Agar suggests may be part of the story of her move towards what later became known as ‘Thatcherism’.

The changes were not liked by the scientific establishment. The Royal Society argued they should be consulted, not just as a relevant professional association but because, as scientists, they should have autonomy from political direction. Framing Thatcher’s view on this in terms of her developing political philosophy, Agar argues that for her, science represented the best of the public economy: research councils were, along with grammar schools and Oxbridge, places where the public economy worked. Moreover, she saw it as a source for wealth, which for her, justified public spending. But this same justification made it a test case for her emerging views on economic liberalism: ‘If markets could work for science policy, they could work anywhere’ (Agar, 2011: 12). Moreover, because Thatcher had worked as a scientist, she understood it at a very mundane level; its nuts, bolts, labcoats, conical flasks and theories of soap production. As such, she was impervious to lobbying that of science as a special case, with special features, incapable of being understood by outsiders. As Agar concludes: ‘Thatcher, who lived both worlds [science and politics], saw no separation, in principle and in practice.’ (Agar, 2011: 13).

Poking at the idea that simply getting scientists and those with ‘an understanding of science’ (whatever that is) in parliament will necessarily serve the scientific establishment is, I’d argue, a much more interesting outcome of researching Thatcher the scientist than QI-style discussions of any involvement she may or may not have had in the production of cheap icecream. It also helps dispel the idea that politically engaged science in the UK is necessarily left-leaning (even if groups like Save British Science or individuals like JD Bernal might make it seem so). Scientists come in a range of guises. Thatcher had hers and it coloured her view. In many ways it’s a rather typical one even, if it doesn’t fit everyone’s preferred image of the scientist.

You can read Agar’s paper for yourself, there’s no paywall (edit: at least for this week). Moreover, it’s a very readable bit of scholarly writing, with a fair amount of dry humour and the odd moment of dramatic characterisation. There’s also an accompanying video podcast where Agar introduces the paper (because even publications in Notes and Records of the Royal Society have trailers these days).

Science and craft

Mendel's peas
Mendel’s pea, by some of last year’s science communication MSc students

There seems to be more and more events happening which I can only describe as science-craft. I thought I’d write about it, and did a post for the Guardian Science blog.

There are overlaps here with sci-art projects, just as there are overlaps (sometimes problematic ones) between arts and crafts more generally. However, I think science craft events have the potential to involve new and different communities which sci-art doesn’t necessary reach, and to be more participatory in their whole project set up too.

There is the question of what you participate for exactly: what are you making? At danger of repeating myself, science communication isn’t all about baking a cake shaped like a neuron. In particular, I worry that the fluffier ends of sci-craft might act as a distraction from the production of more politically controversial outcomes.

Still, we shouldn’t loose sight of the use of these more playful products too. Or rather, we shouldn’t ignore the power of the social interactions which surround their production. My knitting friends often laugh at me for being a ‘process knitter’. I’ll happily take a piece apart and re-knit it, several times. Finishing is nice. But, for me, the fun’s in the doing. Similarly, I suspect much of the worth of public engagement happens in the process rather than the outcome. The various collaborative processes often involved in crafting can provide a space for people to talk through and think through ideas together. As I end the piece for the Guardian:

At a knitting evening held at Hunterian Museum a few years back, I ended up sitting next to a homeopath. As well as swapping tips on the best way to bind off for socks, we discussed our own research projects, including the ways in which they might be seen to clash, and some of the items of the history of surgery that surrounded us. Other people listened and joined in, before we all moved on to complaining about estate agents. It was polite, humorous and thoughtful. It was also pleasingly mundane; something that we’d all do well to remember a lot of science is.

To give another example, I spotted this video of a neuroscientist, Zarinah Agnew,  making a giant sandcastle. She told me she wants to do it again, but as a workshop rather than a film. I like this idea, because the time spent making the sandcastle allows space for social interaction which simply watching the film might inspire, but won’t necessarily do in itself.

Not all public engagement can or should have an obvious political or scientific outcome. Whether you want to open up the governance of science or increase the public understanding of science, you are unlikely to get anywhere without quite a bit of cultural change first. Playing with a bit of yarn might seem unambitious, but arguably the social interaction and reflection that comes with it can help us get there. Or this social interaction might lead us somewhere else entirely.

A brief history of awesome


Some might argue such a preponderance of superlatives has something to with the hyper-mediated nature of postmodernity. Others might more breezily blame the internet. Whatever the reason, there seems to be an awful lot of awesome around.

Indeed, science writer and film-maker John Pavlus recently argued that a sense of awe was the first principle of engagement with science. Pavlus has a point, and in many respects I liked his post. Still, I think there is a politics embedded in popular science’s use of the awesome, and it’s worth being aware of this. So here’s a brief trip through some of the history, ideas and history-of-ideas wrapped up in popular science’s long-standing obsession with this sum-of-awe.

I’ll start with a bit of etymology, and here I think it’s worth acknowledging the overlaps between awesome and other words associated with a sense of wonderment.  In unpicking the history of a sense of ‘curiosity’, Neil Kenny (1998) argues that it shares much with other similar terms enacted to reflect a desire for knowledge: interest, wonder, marvel, strangeness, subtlety, secret and rarity being the few he flags up. He also emphasises that all these terms have an especially notable plurality of meaning (see also Marr, 2006: 2-3) These are flexibily applied words, and the boundaries of what curiosity was supposed to be applied to or might mean was, throughout the Early Modern period, ‘in a constant process of being not only inscribed but also dissolved’. Indeed, the notion of being curious and useful might be, at once, linked to each other and dissociated within a single page (Kenny, 1998: 109). Similarly, ‘interesting’ achieved prominence in the latter half of the seventeenth century, gradually displacing curiosity as the Enlightenment got underway (Kenny, 1998: 143). The history of ‘interesting’ is equally complex, with multiple, occasionally contradictory, meanings, and Kenny argues that such semantic twists arose largely because the terms reflected aspiration and self-interest (Kenny, 1998: 144). They were political terms, reflecting and ascribing a politics to the objects defined as ‘wondrous’. Indeed, one of the most extraordinary characteristics of ‘curiosity’ was its transformation, in the early modern period, into a morally good or neutral quality, but suggests that even this had some flexibility, with theological communities tending to conceive of it as a pejorative term (Kenny, 1998: 14-15). Curiosity killed the cat, after all. Or Faust maybe (c.f. Haynes, 1994).

Such references to theological communities let’s get onto ideas of the sublime, which is when the history of the awesome really kicks in as a sense of awe is so key. In many respects, a history of awe is tied up with religion. As Marjorie Hope Nicolson (1959) argues, the first writers on the sublime were 17th century explorers who sought a vocabulary to express the new experiences and vistas they discovered. Trained in the classics and the Bible, these were, understandably, the discourses they applied. As Hope puts it, they ‘read into mountains emotions once reserved for God’ (Nicolson, 1959: 271, 224).  This isn’t to suggest popular science which invokes wonder is necessarily doing so in glory of God – I’m not playing a lazy game of spot-the-religious-discourse – only that the history of the language used to express wonder at aspects of the natural world, including studying this (including formalised study, such as science) shares something with the history of language used to refer to God. As I mentioned in a recent post about Victorian children’s books, reading about science was seen a form of devotional activity; it is possible to connect the two. Still, Kenny’s point about the multiple uses of curiosity suggests, such a shared history can lead to spats as much as anything else. As Simon Locke’s (2005) study of ‘enchantment’ around images of science in superhero comics emphasises, this may all seem contradictory, but it is a normal everyday part of the multiple meanings and feelings towards science which we all carry around.

There are, of course, differences between Early Modern forms of wonder and curiosity, and those we see today. Yet, as Mosco (2004) has emphasised in the context of allusions to the sublime in contemporary digital culture, some very old attitudes to knowledge and nature echo through contemporary culture within science and technology’s appeals to wonderment. In contrast, George Rousseau (2006) argues that, aside from the occasional ‘bland attribute ascribed to Newton-style geniuses’, the vogue for curiosity in science ended with the Victorians (Rousseau, 2006: 254). By arguing for the prevalence of discourses of curious wonderment in contemporary popular science, I do not necessarily argue against Rousseau. Rather, I suggest that it is not just historians who retrieve a sense of curiosity from the past; a range of people commenting on science today apply a sense of ‘good old fashioned wonder’ nostalgically (e.g. The Dangerous Book for Boys). Perhaps because we feel a sense of awe so deeply it gets folded into ideas of authenticity. Moreover, Jon Turney, in discussing allusions to the sublime in contemporary popular science, suggests that if anything those qualities noted by the first writers on the sublime have only been amplified by the various tools of contemporary science: ‘The universe has become larger, older, and more violent’ (Turney, 2004: 94).

This point about being large, old and more violent is key, and brings me back to the meanings of the sublime and, in particular, the politics of awesome.

For our purposes, the sublime is probably best introduced as a sense of being near greatness, an aesthetic experience of finding something beautiful, but one that is mingled with awe. Traditional examples come from the experiences of 17th or 18th century explorers. As Hope Nicolson emphasises, it is generally associated with large scales, evoked in reference to grand scale views such as those from and over mountain ranges. Such large scales can refer to both time and space; the point is that the sublime object is so great it is (almost) inconceivable as it takes over the subject’s ability to comprehend. As Nicholson’s book suggests, the sublime describes the sense of majesty we might feel when faced with a mountain range. Rainforests or waterfalls are also classic examples, as is the night sky.

Formalised ideas of the sublime date back to the 18th century philosophical work of Edmund Burke (1756) and Immanuel Kant (1760). Crucially, Burke associates the sublime with a sense of terror, using this as a distinction between simple beauty and the sublime. Kant further distinguishes between what he dubbed the ‘dynamic’ and the ‘mathematical’ sublime. The former is akin to Burke’s notion of transfixing terror; the latter, however, extends notions of the sublime to something more abstract. In the presence of a large scale, of a sense of apparent infinity, Kant’s subject experiences the feelings of weakness and insignificance which go with being in awe. Yet, crucially, as the mathematical sublime is slightly more conceptual than the dynamic sublime: the subject then recovers a sense of superior self-worth with the thought that their mind was able to conceive something so large and powerful. As David Nye (1994) neatly puts it in his inspiring book American Technological Sublime, ‘the subject passes through humiliation and awe to a heightened awareness of reason’ (Nye, 1994: 7).

Yes, I have noticed the similarities between this and Douglas Adams’s tale of Zaphod Beeblebrox and the Total Perspective Vortex.

What I want to emphasise here is that the pleasure of experiencing the sublime, including this sense of intellectual superiority that comes with it, can be tied up in a sense of one’s significance in the world. Because of the feelings of awe and insignificance tied up in the experience of a sublime presence, allusions to the sublime ascribe power to the sublime object, or at least admit power and formalise it to some degree. Nye suggests the technological sublime invites the observer to interpret the power of technology as an expansion of human power and thus an achievement they can feel linked to (which is also why this is American technological sublime, it’s part of a sense of national identity). No longer do they necessarily feel like an insignificant human with respect to the power of nature: ‘One is both the all-seeing observer in a high tower and the ant-like pedestrian inching along the pavement below’ (Nye, 1994: 285).

I think we can extend Nye’s point to science too. Nye says a sense of awe at an awesome piece of technology makes us, in some ways, go wow at the people who made it (e.g. I bloody love bridges, skyscrapers make be go wow too, and all those twinkly lights on the side of Harrods at night are incredible). I say a sense of awe at science can make us go wow at clever scientists who worked things out too. Again, this is an achievement we can feel linked to in some way because they are other humans, even if we might also feel that these people are a bit cleverer than us. I’d also stress that I think this makes the sense of one’s significance in the world is in some respects a form of social significance. A sense of awe at science is not just a power relationship which mixes a sense of superiority and inferiority with nature (or an idea of a Maker) but with other people.

So, my point is that celebrating the awesome in popular science is in many respects celebrating the awesomeness of other people. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, maybe it’s a good thing. At best, the sense of a shared human ability to comprehend might mean non scientists feel a connection with science through invoking a sense of awe (a collective feeling of “omg, people are amaz-ing”). At worst, that sense of majesty gets carried over to the scientists, and audiences see a difference between their puny little brains and the great cleverness of others (a more divisive feeling connected to disconnects with scientific communities). I’m not sure which one wins out. My best guess is bits of both, and probably neither most of the time, entirely depends on context and individuals involved.

So, there is a politics embedded in the awesome – a story of human connection with natural objects, ideas and other people – and I think is worth bearing in mind.


  • Burke, Edmund (1757/ 1987) A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, edited by James T Boulton (Oxford: Basil Blackwell).
  • Haynes, Rosalind (1994) From Faust to Strangelove: representations of the scientist in western literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press).
  • Nye, David (1994) American Technological Sublime (Camb, Mass: MIT Press).
  • Kenny, Neil (1998) Curiosity in Early Modern Europe: Word Histories (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1998).
  • Kant, Immanuel (1760/ 1960) Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, trans. JT Goldthwait (Berkeley: University of California Press).
  • Locke, Simon (2005) ‘Fantastically Reasonable: Ambivalence in the Representation of Science and Technology in Super-hero Comics’, Public Understanding of Science, vol. 14 (1): 25-46.
  • Marr, Alexander (2006) ‘Introduction’, in, RJW Evans & Alexander Marr (eds) Curiosity and Wonder from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment (Aldershot & Burlington: Ashgate) 1-20.
  • Mosco, Vincent (2004) The Digital Sublime: Myth, Power, and Cyberspace (Cambridge, MA & London: MIT Press).
  • Nicolson, Marjorie Hope (1959/ 1997) Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press).
  • Rousseau, George (2006) ‘Curiosity and the lusus naturae: The case of ‘Porteus’ Hill’ and Epilogue in, RJW Evans & Alexander Marr (eds) Curiosity and Wonder from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment (Aldershot & Burlington: Ashgate) 213-250, 251-254.
  • Turney, Jon (2004) ‘The Abstract Sublime: Life as Information Waiting to be Rewritten’, Science as Culture, vol.13 no.1, pp.89-103.

EDIT 29/3: see also follow up post on considering the politics of the technological sublime at Milan station.

Science Communication 101 bibliography

A couple of months ago, a colleague asked me to post an introductory bibliography for science communication studies. I was slightly wary, because the literature in the field is rather scattered and can be a bit dense in places. Moreover, I don’t like the idea that you need to have read any particular source to understand science communication. I do think they can help, but you can learn about the topic in a range of ways. The idea of a science communication ‘canon’ is silly.

Still, inspired by a recent set of History of Psychology bibliographies and a great one at the Science and Democracy Network, I thought it might be useful. I’ve tried to give sources which are accessible: both in terms of being easy to read and being easy to find (and as much as possible, free to download).

Let me know if I’ve missed something you think is amazing and want to share with others. I should also say upfront that this is quite UK centric.

  • Science in Public, by Jane Gregory and Steve Miller. This textbook is comprehensive, clear and ever so slightly cynical (in a good way). Annoyingly, it is also about 15 years old. It looks a bit dated in places and I wish they’d do an update, but most of the content still stands up and it’s still the first book I’d recommend.
  • These two recent books from the OU on Science Communication in an Information Age are designed as introductions and are pretty good (even if they don’t really get to grips with what they mean by information age…).  I especially like the essays by Alan Irwin, Robert Doubleday, Jack Stilgoe, James Wilsdon, Sarah Davies and Felicity Mellor.
  • See Through Science by James Wilsdon and Rebbecca Willis, published by Demos. This is free, downloadable, clearly written and reasonably short. It’s the manifesto for ‘upstream’ science communication, but’s also a great introduction to ideas in public participation in science. I tell students to read it to help revise for exams. Other Demos publications The Public Value of Science and The Received Wisdom are recommended.
  • Mike Hulme’s Why We Disagree About Climate Change provides a very clear run through the social studies of science which are relevant to science communication. Its focus is environmental science, but much of it is more broadly applicable. I can similarly recommend Steven Epstein’s  Impure Science: AIDS, Activism, and the Politics of Knowledge as a book on a reasonably specific topic which manages to introduce a load of key ideas along the way.
  • The 2000 House of Lords Report on Science and Society. Yes, a Lords report that is totally readable and incredibly influential. For real. The government recently tried to update this with a series of more specific reports, and the one on trust is worth a read (though most of the others dated quite quickly). This recent study of scientists talking about public engagement from LSE’s BIOS Centre will also help bring things up to date.
  • If you want the classics, you should read Misunderstanding Science? from Alan Irwin and Brian Wynne. It’s worth listening to Wynne’s interview in the CBC “How to Think About Science” podcasts for a bit more context. Irwin’s Citizen Science is also worth a read. These will help explain why people bitch about a so-called ‘deficit model’. Stephen Hiltgartner’s paper on the ‘Dominant View’, is also useful for understanding a shift from talking down to the public about science and instead attempting to inspire conversations between science and society.
  • Peter Broks’ Understanding Popular Science is good for the long view, including some clear introductions to areas of social theory (or at least notions of ‘modernity’ etc). Don’t be put off by the title, it is about science communication in general (by which I mean it includes what some people prefer to call ‘engagement’ rather than ‘popular science’). If you like your social theory with a more sociological smell, try Science, Social Theory and Public Knowledge by Alan Irwin and Mike Michael.
  • Oh yeah, I edited a book once. I forgot about that. You should totally read that. Ok, don’t. It’s really rare, but the introduction, which you can download for free, is probably quite useful. My essay in that book – on the way we frame children’s relationships with science – is also free to download.
  • There is an Encyclopedia of Science Communication. Obviously it is BRILLIANT because I wrote two of the entries. It is also huge, heavy and £220. So… um, see if your local university library has a copy.
  • If you are interested in studies of what the public think/ know about science you really should try to get hold of Bauer et al’s ‘What can we learn from 25 years of PUS survey research’. It introduces all the main approaches and publications in this area, with brilliant clarity and fair context.
  • If you are interested in science in the news media, Stuart Allan’s Media, Risk and Science is a nice clear introductory textbook. I can also recommend this report from the University of Cardiff. It’s nothing especially shocking and starting to show its age, but I’ve found myself sharing it loads over the last couple of years as a great introduction to basic media analysis of science. Dorothy Nelkin’s Selling Science is another classic, and Martin Bauer’s longitudinal analysis of 20th century British science news is fascinating. There are loads of other great books on the topic, but they are quite rare.
  • If it’s popular science writing you are interested in, then have a read of some of Jon Turney’s essays on the topic. Elizabeth Leane’s Reading Popular Physics is also worth a look, and for a historical view, it’s hard to beat Fyfe and Lightman’s Science in the Marketplace (it’s not just about books either).
  • When it comes to ‘new-ish media’, science bloggers are a reflexive bunch and what they write about themselves is often worth a look. It doesn’t always have the same depth or breadth of view as you’d expect from academic research, but their subjective experience can be useful and interesting too. Ed Yong’s journalism category is certainly worth keeping a eye on. Alternatively, Brian Trench has some neat overviews of science online in these three books.

As with any list of introductory texts, it’s a bit vanilla in places. If you want the juicy bits, follow up the interesting sounding references in bibliographies. Or, for more up to date and detailed work, have a dig around the field’s main two journals: Public Understanding of Science and Science Communication. You might also find Science as Culture, the Social Studies of Science, and Science, Technology and Human Values useful. There is also the Journal of Science Communication – a fair amount of it is just masters’ dissertations, but these can be interesting and it’s open access.

Happy Birthday UCL

No entry to the poor

I took this photo in the middle of all the anti-fees protests at the end of last term: a bit of graffiti on the door of the UCL History Department states “no entry to the poor”.

I’m posting it because UCL is 185 years old today.

Walking around the campus earlier, there didn’t seem to be any signs of a birthday celebration. But I think it is worth marking, and not just because it’s where I did my BSc. I may joke that KCL smells of wee, but I’ve never really understood territorial cheer-leading for one’s alma mater. No, I think everyone involved in English Higher Education should celebrate UCL’s birthday, because it many respects it is a birthday for us all.

As a recent Guardian editorial put it, UCL was established to “break the stranglehold of Oxford and Cambridge”. Up until 1826, England was limited to just these two universities. This not only meant a university education was available to the very few, but fostered a certain amount of elitist complacency which meant you effectively had to be a wealthy male Anglican to study for a degree in England. The whole point of UCL was to open up education in England. This is why that bit of graffiti above is quite so poignant. Open up education it did, as other universities sparked off across the country (some more to balance the seeming radicalism of UCL as much as follow it, granted… told you KCL smells of wee).

UCL was the first higher education institution in England to accept students of any race or religious or political belief, and the first to accept women on equal terms with men. It was also the first in England to establish a students’ union. Importantly, breaking the two-university culture of England meant new subjects could flourish too. There was a greater intellectual freedom as well as social freedom breathed into English academia with the birth of UCL, and it was the first university to have professorships in chemical engineering, chemistry, electrical engineering, geography, many major modern European languages (including English), psychology, and zoology. Although it is also worth noting that UCL doesn’t have theology, music or politics departments because these subjects were associated with the forms of social segregation they aimed to avoid. KCL has, something UCL students have long parodied, stealing “this way to the theology department” signs to decorate their union with.

(you can read more in the wikipedia page on UCL’s history).

The drama of the anti-fees protests may have died down a bit since last term, but as the government seem set on privatising our university system and we all start to think more and more about fair access, the birth of UCL is well worth marking.